A writer at CyberScoop, last month, spoke with the former director of The Onion Project, Andrew Lewman. Lewman left the Tor project two years ago and now works at OWL Cybersecurity. He advises military and intelligence agencies in the United States, including the NSA and DHS. As Patrick Howell O’Neill wrote, “his meetings with governments have gone from educating officials on how people use Tor to helping law enforcement investigate criminal activity occurring on Tor.”
Lewman explained that what changed the most since his days at the Tor project was that “drug markets have taken over.” The root, or core, of the onion routing network came from a government project in the 1990s. Scientists from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory developed onion routing for the protection of U.S. intelligence communications.
The Silk Road set an example for follow-up criminal activity, Lewman explained.
“We had all these hopeful things in the beginning but ever since Silk Road has proven you can do it, the criminal use of Tor has become overwhelming. I think 95 percent of what we see on the onion sites and other darknet sites is just criminal activity. It varies in severity from copyright piracy to drug markets to horrendous trafficking of humans and exploitation of women and children.”
To contrast, even the FBI acknowledged that Tor was not a tool used solely by criminals. “Tor has known legitimate uses,” a complaint against Silk Road founder, Ross Ulbricht read. The same complaint explained that “bitcoins are not illegal in and of themselves and have known legitimate uses.” However, it also outlined the difficulties hidden services poised to law enforcement and that Bitcoin tumblers served no purpose but to mask identities of transcribes from law enforcement.
O’Neill brought the topic of SecureDrop to the table. SecureDrop is Tor-dependent tool for whistleblowers and sources that allows them access to a publication or journalist without revealing their identity. Many upstanding and recognized media Outlets use securedrop as a method to spread news that originated from a Snowden-esque source.
“[SecureDrop is] a marketing thing,” Lewman said. “You have it because it sounds good, but effectively no one uses it at all. Almost every time if someone does manage to upload some documents they end up doing it by email because they get so sick of the back and forth over the hidden service.”
Several media outlets told O’Neill that they had received useful stories and documents through SecureDrop. Micah Lee, a technologist at the Intercept, told the reporter that the Intercept gets a lot of good stuff through SecureDrop. “We also get a lot of useless stuff. It’s sort of like a tips email address. Maybe you occasionally get good stuff and you get a lot of not actual tips or people who are wanting to contact Glenn Greenwald or whatever. But we do actually get some stories from SecureDrop. It’s definitely a very useful resource and I know we’re not the only ones.”
Very few debate the fact that the anonymity provided by Tor enabled criminals to commit crimes more stealthily than before. But large-scale investigations like Operation Pacifier and the takedown of Silk Road revealed that law enforcement is far from blind, even if Tor makes their work more difficult. Those large scale Investigations also reveal the level of depravity found in certain corners of the Internet.