On July 15th in Pittsburgh, David J. Hickton, a gray-haired U.S. attorney in a crisp dark suit, stepped out before an American flag to announce the feds’ latest victory against online crime. “We have dismantled a cyber-hornet’s nest of criminal hackers, which was believed by many to be impenetrable,” he said. “We are in the process of rounding up and charging the hornets.” By the next morning, more than 70 people across the world had been charged, arrested or searched in what the Department of Justice called “the largest coordinated international law-enforcement effort ever directed at an online cybercriminal forum.”
After an 18-month international investigation led by the FBI, known as Operation Shrouded Horizon, hackers on a site called Darkode were accused of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiring to commit computer fraud. The trail of crimes was massive, with one member compromising companies including Microsoft and Sony and another swiping data from more than 20 million victims. Hickton said Darkode posed “one of the gravest threats to the integrity of data on computers in the United States and around the world.” Its computers were considered “bulletproof” from the law by running on offshore servers — including one traced to Seychelles, the remote island nation in the Indian Ocean. “Cybercriminals should not have a safe haven to shop for the tools of their trade,” said FBI Deputy Director Mark F. Giuliano, “and Operation Shrouded Horizon shows we will do all we can to disrupt their unlawful activities.”
At least for a bit. Two weeks later, “Sp3cial1st,” the main administrator of Darkode, posted a retaliatory statement on a new website — underscoring the feds’ struggle to police the Internet. “Most of the staff is intact, along with senior members,” Sp3cial1st wrote. “It appears the raids focused on newly added individuals or people that have been retired from the scene for years. The forum will be back.” He vowed the organization would regroup on the Web’s deepest, most impenetrable region, the Darknet — a space where anyone, including criminals, can remain virtually anonymous. And the Darknet could never be shut down — thanks, conveniently, to the feds, who created it and are still financing its growth.
The Darknet (sometimes called the Dark Web) works on the Tor browser, free software that masks your location and activity. Originally designed by the Naval Research Lab, Tor receives 60 percent of its backing from the State Department and the Department of Defense to act as a secure network for government agencies as well as dissidents fighting oppressive regimes. It is a privacy tool that has been used for both good and evil. Over the past decade, Tor has empowered activists to spread news during the Arab Spring; it has helped domestic-violence victims hide from online stalkers; and it has allowed ordinary citizens to surf without advertisers tracking them. But at the same time, the Darknet, which Tor enables, has become the primary cove for criminals like Ross Ulbricht, imprisoned founder of Silk Road; the hackers behind the recent Ashley Madison attacks; and the international crew busted by the feds in July. As an instrument for both activists and criminals, Tor presents an increasingly difficult problem for law enforcement to solve — exacerbating the hapless game of whack-a-mole facing those who try to bring law to the most lawless part of the Net. And the battle over the Darknet’s future could decide the fate of online privacy in the U.S. and abroad. As Hickton tells Rolling Stone, “It’s the Wild West of the Internet.”