‘Operation Onymous’: The FBI’s War on Online Black Markets
Blake Benthall, 26, an alleged operator of “Silk Road 2.0,” operating under the pseudonym “defcon” was arrested by the FBI on Wednesday in San Francisco.
The Silk Road was an online anonymous marketplace, or Dark Net, where users could mask their identity and purchase illegal goods and services online. Using Bitcoin, users could purchase everything from weapons, drugs, assassinations and, allegedly, weapons of mass destruction.
In October of 2013, Ross William Ulbricht, was identified by the FBI to be the owner of the Silk Road was arrested in his Hayes Valley apartment in San Francisco. Within a month, Benthall and other previous administrators had Silk Road 2.0 up an running.
Benthall’s arrest and the FBI’s seizure of Silk Road 2.0 were part of a larger, perhaps worldwide, crackdown dubbed “Operation Onymous.” In partnership with European law enforcement, the FBI has announced a “global action” against similar black market websites. The FBI alleges that the operation so far has resulted in at least 17 arrests and the seizure of 410 similar services, $1 million in Bitcoins, and $250,000 in cash and drugs.
Benthall’s first court hearing was Thursday, where Ars Technica reported that the entire hearing lasted about fifteen minutes.
According to Ars Technica, Benthall did not speak during the federal hearing, other than to confirm his identity and age. Benthall’s attorney, Daniel Blank, a public defender, said that he had only met his client on the day of trial, and knows very little about the case so far.
According to the FBI, Benthall admitted to running Silk Road 2.0 only moments after being read his Miranda rights. This prompted, according to the same report, Kathryn Haun, the court’s federal prosecutor to point out that the court’s primary concern was of Benthall fleeing the country. He was allegedly found with more than $100,000 in cash in his home and a valid passport.
Benthall, who is being held in custody in Oakland, is due to appear in court in San Francisco again on Friday, before being transferred to New York where the original federal complaint originated.
Benthall has not been given a formal indictment and did not enter a plea but if convicted, he will likely serve life in prison.
The FBI’s ‘Global Effort’
The FBI released their initial statement in a media operation that was intended to dissuade other potential users.
The FBI tweeted a statement on Nov. 6 in which they said “those looking to follow in the footsteps of alleged cybercriminals should understand that we will return as many times as necessary to shut down noxious online criminal bazaars. We don’t get tired.”
While Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0 and other markets like it, operate by using the “Tor” network, a free software for enabling online anonymity, the FBI was able to infiltrate Silk Road 2.0 support staff directly via an undercover agent who was, according to the FBI’s statement, “given access to private restricted areas of the site reserved for Benthall and his administrative Staff.”
The statement alleges that the FBI and Homeleand Security Investigations (HSI) were then “able to interact directly with Benthall throughout his operation of the website.”
In the operation that Wired calls “a scorched-earth purge of the Internet underground,” other, the FBI and Europol have arrested nearly 20 individuals so far (numbers vary between 17-19) and have seized and shut down more than 400 hidden websites.
Although a complete list of those apprehended has yet to be compiled, The Telegraph reported six Britons were arrested for alleged Silk Road 2.0 involvement, and BBC has work of two more in Ireland.
Cleaning the Mean Cyber-Streets
Although these Dark Net websites undoubtedly sell some very dangerous goods and services, the argument has also been made that the FBI will make the world a more dangerous place by shutting them down.
The logic is this: these websites cut out face-to-face drug sales. As a result, some of the secondary crime that comes with the drug market, which is most of the time violent, is eliminated.
Additionally, the websites have a user rating system, which serves not only to rate the transaction, but to also rate the quality of the drug. While on the street, drug users often are left in the dark about what might be in their drugs, a near five star rating on a product in the online market place can almost guarantee a pure product.
According to the Washington Post, the FBI has made over a hundred purchases of drugs from the market, and has tested them for purity.
FBI agent Christopher Tarbell explained to the Post that “samples of these purchases have been laboratory-tested and have typically shown high purity levels of the drug item was advertised to be on the Silk Road.”
A New ‘War on Cyberdrugs?’
According to statements from the FBI, this is only the first round of crackdowns, focused almost entirely on arresting those who run the marketplaces, throughout Europe and the U.S. The next step, is to target those who purchased illegal goods from the marketplace.