Wednesday, April 23, 2014
 

Hunting for child porn, FBI stymied by Tor undernet

Anonymous shadow Internet's surfers beyond federal grip - this time

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Recently released documents detail the federal government's inability to pursue cybercriminals shrouded by the tricky anonymity tools used by the Silk Road marketplace and other darknet sites - tools which are funded in part by the federal government itself. In this particular case, a citizen reported stumbling upon a cache of child pornography while browsing the anonymous Tor network's hidden sites, which are viewable with specialized, but readily available, tools and the special .onion domain.

Documents, released through a Freedom of Information Act request by Jason Smathers on MuckRock, show that after being given details of the illicit material, investigators were stymied as to the origin of the pornography's host. In the investigators' own words, "there is not currently a way to trace the origin of the website. As such no other investigative leads exist."

An FBI report detailing frustrations tracking Tor-based sites.

Smathers' request was originally for all Justice Department records mentioning the Silk Road marketplace. The Justice Department forwarded the request on to the FBI for processing. In fact, the FBI had received an almost identical request, also filed by Smathers, and rejected it, claiming at the time that responsive records could not be found.

While he is currently appealing the FBI's initial response, 11 pages of responsive documents were withheld from the Justice Department's release. The FBI cited Exemption (b)7(d) in that case, which excludes from disclosure "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes which could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source and information furnished by a confidential source."

The FBI and DEA had been directed to investigate Tor networks, and specifically the Silk Road marketplace where users can buy and sell legal and illegal goods anonymously using a combination of Tor and the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, by Senator Charles Schumer who stated that the DEA was "aware of the site" and most likely investigating it.

A nearly identical request regarding Silk Road to the Drug Enforcement Agency was rejected as being too broad or burdensome to process, while the Secret Service claimed it had no responsive documents, as did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The DEA has touted infiltrating similar anonymous Tor marketplaces in the past.

Despite the illegal ends of these marketplaces, the technology was begun and still operates with more noble aims: It was originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Lab, and later maintained by the Tor Project, a non-profit group supported financially at various times by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, various governmental and NGO entities, Google and the National Science Foundation. The technology has proven important in puncturing through Internet censorship and tracking attempts around the world.

Michael Morisy is the co-founder of MuckRock and can be contacted at Michael@MuckRock.com.

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