Global agencies swoop on 'dark markets' using Tor

Law enforcement and judicial agencies around the globe undertook a joint action against so-called "dark markets" running anonymously on the "Tor" network on Thursday.

The European-wide law enforcement agency Europol and counterparts from the U.S., took the joint action "to stop the sale, distribution and promotion of illegal and harmful items, including weapons and drugs, which were being sold on online 'dark' marketplaces" on the "Tor" network, Europol said in a statement on Friday.

The term "dark marketplaces" is used because illegal websites are operating in the so-called "Darknet," an undetectable area of the normal, surface internet. The "Darknet" is accessed using networks like Tor (an acronym for "The Onion Router") a free network designed to anonymize the real IP address of internet users by routing their traffic through many servers of the Tor network.

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Tor is used by a variety of people for both legal and illicit purposes. As well as helping to prevent internet users from identity theft it can protect the communications of political dissidents or journalists in repressive regimes.

On the flip side, however, it can enable criminals to operate online largely hidden from the authorities by hiding internet users' locations and drugs, weapon, counterfeit goods and even hitmen for hire can be found on the Darknet.

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Thursday's "Operation Onymous" was coordinated by a variety of crime agencies including Europol's European Cybercrime Centre (EC3), the FBI, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and resulted in 17 arrests of vendors and administrators running "dark" online marketplaces and more than 410 hidden services being taken down.

Bitcoins worth approximately $1 million, 180,000 euros in cash, drugs, gold and silver were seized, Europol said. The FBI and the U.S. ICE and HIS teams also took down "Silk Road 2.0" – a drugs marketplace operating in the dark net – and arrested its operator.

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The "Silk Road" that uses the Tor network to operate undetected was shut down by U.S. authorities a year ago but four weeks later the site was back up and running again. On Friday, a day after Silk Road 2.0 was pulled down by crime agencies there were already mentions across social media site Reddit of a Silk Road 3.0.

Thursday's global enforcement operation showed that the authorities are serious about fighting back, according to Troels Oerting, head of Europol's Cybercrime Centre.

Ratiba Hamzaoui | AFP | Getty Images

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"We have demonstrated that, together, we are able to efficiently remove vital criminal infrastructures that are supporting serious organized crime," he said in Europol's statement on the operation released on Friday.

"We are not 'just' removing these services from the open Internet; this time we have also hit services on the Darknet using Tor where, for a long time, criminals have considered themselves beyond reach. We can now show that they are neither invisible nor untouchable. The criminals can run but they can't hide. And our work continues."