Private 'darknet' markets under siege

Private 'darknet' markets under siege
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Darknet marketplaces using the anonymous online network Tor have been under siege this week from “the most serious attack TOR has ever seen,” according to one marketplace operator.

The cyber assault has targeted two major hidden online marketplaces, Middle Earth and Agora. Both have been struggling to stay up as they get hit with a flood of connection attempts that have overwhelmed the hidden sites.

The strategy is called a denial-of-service attack. Apparently the digital assailants are exploiting a “serious security flaw” Tor developers were unaware of.

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“TOR developers are saying that they think the problem will be solved in a few more days,” a Middle Earth operator who goes by “MEMGandalf” said earlier this week on social media website Reddit.

It’s not clear who is behind the attack and whether it is ongoing. But darknet marketplaces have received increasing scrutiny from government investigators in recent months.

Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security subpoenaed Reddit for information about the top posters on the subforum the Middle Earth operator used to announced the attack.

In a major sweep last fall, federal officials also took down Silk Road — the largest darknet market at the time — as well as hundreds of other websites and services operating on the Tor network.

Darknet markets using Tor are not accessible through the regular Internet and sell anything from drugs, weapons, hacking tools to child pornography.

Those running the markets are hidden behind the software as well, posing a challenge to investigators.

FBI Director James Comey has called it the “going dark” problem, where criminals are able to operate in a zone of complete anonymity.

But Tor is also the leading privacy tool used to help dissenters hide from authoritarian regimes, protect journalists from persecution and simply keep information safe from hackers. The U.S. government funds the vast majority of the software’s development costs.

The contradiction has put the Obama administration in a tough position: trying to simultaneously defend the right to online anonymity while finding a way to digitally track suspected criminals.

The heightened scrutiny has not deterred darknet operators.

“Please do not worry, Middle-Earth is alive and well, everything is just in ‘cryo-freeze’ for security reasons,” MEMGandalf said.