In a major crackdown on dark markets selling illegal products and services, the European and American police have closed down hundreds of illegal websites and arrested 17 people so far. The police made use of new techniques to nab the faces behind those murky sites. “The action aimed to stop the sale, distribution and promotion of illegal and harmful items, including weapons and drugs, which were being sold on online ‘dark’ marketplaces,” Europol said on Friday.
Authorities said the arrests were made possible by piercing the anonymity software used by these murky sites. That was done with the help of Tor, a free encryption software that aims to make it impossible for Internet users to be tracked. This software is usually used in countries such like Iran, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia to access the Internet, though of late people with nefarious plans operating websites and selling contraband goods and services have been using it to conceal their identities.
“It’s a game changer,” said Ulf Bergstrom, a spokesman for Eurojust, the European Union’s legal coordination agency. “You’re not anonymous anymore when you’re using Tor.”
Troels Oerting, head of the police agency’s cyber crimes division, said it coordinated raids in more than a dozen countries on Thursday, including a U.S. operation in which the FBI announced the arrest in San Francisco of a man accused of running the Silk Road 2.0 online drug bazaar.
“We will go after drug dealers regardless of whether they operate in the physical or virtual world,” he said.
A total of 414 sites have been hunted and shut down in the operation codenamed “Onymous”, though Europol declined to elaborate on the methodology employed for identifying vendors and administrators on the supposedly anonymous Darknet.
The operation seized virtual Bitcoins, used to carry out transactions, worth US$1 million (800,000 euros), 180,000 euros in cash as well as unspecified drugs. “We are not ‘just’ removing these services from the open Internet,” said Troels Oerting, the head of Europol’s EC3 cybercrime unit.
“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.”
Not yet done, European authorities have made it clear that they will laso be going after those who were buying stuff from such sites. “They’ll get a knock on their doors,” he said. “That will not be the milkman, that will be the police.”
The sites shut include Hydra and Cannabis Road, Eurojust said. Thursday’s arrest focused on websites that sell drugs and weapons, Mr. Oerting said. The seizures and arrests were conducted by authorities from France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S., Spain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, and Switzerland, Eurojust said.