Saturday, July 12, 2014

WORLD OPINION: ONLINE CRIME The Silk Road paved with bad intentions

November 18. 2013 10:18AM

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U.S. authorities last month arrested Ross William Ulbricht and charged him with running an online marketplace for a cornucopia of illegal goods and deals. That online bazaar was called The Silk Road, which, like its fabled namesake, offered visitors just about anything they desired.

The arrest has thrown light on two disturbing elements of the Internet — the existence of the so-called Deep Web, a massive virtual world that is not visible to most Web users or search engines, and the use of Bitcoin, a rapidly expanding digital currency that allows for anonymous transactions.

These revelations are a reminder that despite fears of living in a surveillance state, substantial parts of the digital world remain unobserved and unregulated — perhaps dangerously so.

The Silk Road, sometimes called the eBay of the black market, was set up in 2011. Its 900,000 users could deal in just about anything illegal, including counterfeit currencies and documents, drugs, guns, hacking services and even murder for hire.

Transactions on Silk Road were conducted in Bitcoin, a digital currency that is actually an open-source protocol running on computers.

Silk Road and Bitcoin were designed to foster anonymity and permit transactions that would leave no trace of the people behind them. Ulbricht, charged with narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, computer-hacking conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy, was arrested not because of ace digital detective work but because he slipped up and left real-world fingerprints.

He was arrested when fake IDs he ordered online from Canada were discovered at a routine border search and the authorities followed them to his home.

Most of us are familiar only with the Surface Web, the part indexed by standard search engines. Those services, however, merely trawl the surface of the worldwide web; as much as 96 percent of the Internet remains beyond their algorithms.

Access to these websites is by invitation only, available only to those who know where to look and which digital doors to knock on. …

Terrorists and criminals deserve no safe havens, but many civil society groups battling authoritarian governments use the same technologies. So, too, do individuals who wish to protect personal information from unauthorized access.

Today the headlines are dominated by reports of unlimited surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency. In the case of Bitcoin and the Deep Web, the fear is that the NSA is not doing its job properly.

Law enforcement is waking up to these new challenges, but technology continues to outpace the detectives. Finding people with the right skill set is difficult; being able to afford them when that means competing with the astronomical salaries offered by the private sector makes it a whole new type of challenge.

The bigger question remains, however: How can we ensure privacy while guaranteeing accountability?

The Japan Times


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