The ‘dark web’ — a series of websites accessible through the anonymous Tor browser, which tends to lend a thin veil of anonymity to users — shot to prominence as a place to buy almost anything thanks to a 2011 Gawker profile of The Silk Road, the internet’s first big marketplace for almost anything. Law enforcement agencies were horrified of the idea that an Amazon for crime could operate semi-openly, making weapons, drugs, and hacking tools available to anyone with a fistful of cryptocurrency, so despite the fact that dark web sales make up a fraction of the global drug and weapons trade, police organizations worldwide have been cracking down with a vengance.
The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it had arrested 35 individuals charged with selling “illicit goods,” and seized a reported $23.6 million in weapons, drugs, and cryptocurrency. The arrests were the culmination of a “year-long, coordinated national operation that used the first nationwide undercover action to target vendors of illicit goods on the Darknet.”
In the press release, the DoJ said that an agent from Homeland Security Investigations posed as a money launderer who would buy cryptocurrency — the way money usually changes hands in Dark Net transactions — for US cash. Agents were then able to investigate the recipients of the cash, leading to the observation of 65 targets and the arrest of 35 alleged Dark Net vendors.
Undercover agents posing as criminals is the feds’ favorite way to tackle online illegal sales, since Tor grants anonymity to criminals and cops alike. In the past, investigators have posed as the administrators of numerous Dark Net websites to gather information, although this appears to the be one of the first operations targeting specific vendors, rather than the people running the sites themselves.
“The Darknet is ever-changing and increasingly more intricate, making locating and targeting those selling illicit items on this platform more complicated. But in this case, HSI special agents were able to walk amongst those in the cyber underworld to find those vendors who sell highly addictive drugs for a profit,” said HSI Acting Executive Associate Director Benner. “The veil has been lifted. HSI has infiltrated the Darknet, and together with its law enforcement partners nationwide, it has proven, once again, that every criminal is within arm’s reach of the law.”