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Online drug dealers take a hit

Federal crackdown on underground drug markets makes future of online drug vending unclear

November 5, 2013

It’s been a rough few weeks for online drug dealers, with the recent shutdown of two major drug vending websites. The first, a website called Atlantis Market, announced at the end of September ago it would be closing due to “security reasons” without offering further details. The second, a site called Silk Road, was shut down by the FBI several weeks ago.

The Silk Road bust resulted in the arrest of site operator Ross Ulbricht and a number of users, but the FBI has by no means shut down online drug vending altogether. Several other online markets are still going strong.

These sites exist in an area of the Internet often called the “dark net,” a network of websites that use encryption software, such as a software called Tor, to conceal their locations and their users’ identities. Websites on the dark net, for example, don’t use normal IP addresses, and all information that is exchanged between servers and clients is encrypted, protecting both parties from outside surveillance. Clients on sites such as Silk Road are often able to make purchases using encrypted digital currency such as Bitcoin, which allows fast, secure and untraceable transactions.  Although not all dark net sites are used for illegal activities –journalists, political advocates and other professionals wishing to avoid the gaze of the National Security Agency frequently use them – the anonymity is ideal for traffickers of illicit goods.

The demise of Atlantis Market and Silk Road is part of a larger crackdown on the dark net by federal authorities. In July, a number of “dark net” sites went down after the FBI took control of a server called Freedom Hosting, which hosted the types of anonymous websites often found on the “dark net.” Wired.com reports that the server was targeted because of its role in the distribution of child pornography, but the sting affected a variety of websites in the process. This means future blackouts could help to bring down the online drug trade, but they could also affect the ability of legal operations to maintain privacy on the internet.

Some sources, however, are not convinced the federal crackdowns are anything to worry about when it comes to internet anonymity.  “The crackdowns mean mostly nothing,” said Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, Inc., in an email.  He added that services such as Tor are still reliable for people wishing to conduct anonymous business on the internet and that individual users are the weak points.  The Tor Project website lists some suggestions to help users maximize their security online, such as disabling browser plug-ins and not opening documents downloaded through Tor while online.

Lewman said the Tor Project does not have a strong opinion about growing federal crackdowns on the “dark net.” “It’s good to see law enforcement not trying to break the technology, but rather doing old-fashioned police work to target the human at the end,” he wrote.

With encryption technology still going strong, despite federal intervention, anonymity may continue to thrive on the internet. However, the message to online illegal operations looks pretty clear: federal tolerance is dwindling, and fast.

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About the Author

Chelsea Harvey is a recent graduate of Auburn University, where she received a B.S. in zoology, as well as minors in English and Spanish. Unable to choose between her love of science and her love of writing, she spent most of her free time as an undergrad working for her campus newspaper while simultaneously memorizing hundreds of scientific names for class. Outside of SHERP, her interests include playing music with friends, traveling and keeping up with international affairs.

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