Cyber Crime Investigations Often Assisted by Incorrect Use of Anonymizing Technology

Tor-logo-2011-flat.svg.pngTools that enable internet users to “anonymize,” or conceal their online identities, have benefitted many people, such as activists fearing government persecution. It has also enabled people engaging in illegal online activity. People may wish to keep their online identities private out of genuine concern for their own safety, or out of a belief that what they do online is simply no one else’s business. Efforts to investigate and track allegedly illegal online activities, however, often threaten to infringe on everyone’s privacy rights. Law enforcement has had little success in cracking anonymizing technology, but ordinary human errors have assisted them in many cases by allowing them to connect anonymous activity to specific suspects. As The Daily Dot put it, the users themselves might be anonymizing technology’s only “glaring weakness.”

A software package known as Tor is one of the most well-known and widely-used anonymizing technologies available today. Its name is short for “The Onion Router,” which refers to the use of multiple network nodes and encryption levels, sort of like the layers of an onion, to conceal the source of online communications. While a normal web browser sends and receives data along a relatively direct route, Tor uses a global network of computers and routers to transmit data along a winding, encrypted path. The Tor Project, a nonprofit organization that makes the software available for free, was originally funded by the U.S. military and still receives funding from the federal government.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has reportedly tried to “de-anonymize” Tor, but has not had any success. While it can reveal the identities of small numbers of users through “manual analysis,” it has not come close to being able to de-anonymize all of Tor’s users at once. Perhaps most importantly from a privacy standpoint, it cannot de-anonymize any one specific user, such as in response to a criminal investigation. Statutes regarding cybercrime require the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant engaged in certain acts. Investigators might try to establish these elements by showing that specific communications originated from a defendant’s computer’s IP address, or that a defendant was logged into their user account at the time certain acts occurred.

Several recent cases show that ordinary human error, rather than any sort of de-anonymizing computer technology, give law enforcement openings to connect individual suspects to alleged crimes. In March 2014, federal agents identified and arrested at least twenty-five individuals accused of using Tor to distribute child pornography. The break in the case came when postal inspectors discovered that a person, who turned out to be the administrator of the website at the center of the distribution ring, was “sending sex objects through the mail to juveniles.” That individual pleaded guilty to federal charges in April.

Other arrests came after users made simple mistakes, such as logging into the website without first logging into Tor. The alleged administrator of Silk Road, an online marketplace for illegal drugs hidden in the Tor network, may have come to law enforcement’s attention by using an email address based on his actual name. A physician accused of selling drugs on Silk Road allegedly used the same nickname on accounts connected to Silk Road and an eBay account that she used openly.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has spent more than twenty years fighting for the rights of west Texas defendants in criminal cases. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your legal matter, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Court Grants, then Stays, Preliminary Injunction in Case Alleging that NSA Metadata Collection Violates Fourth Amendment, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 20, 2013
Law Enforcement Cracks Down on New Area of Cybercrime: Alleged Online Extortionists Targeting Young Women and Minors, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 9, 2013
Federal Prosecutors Charge Alleged Proprietor of Online Marketplace for Illegal Drugs, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 3, 2013
Photo credit: By Tor Project [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.