A drug dealer from Wales has been sent to prison for two years.
Unlike most busts, however, Cei William Owens wasn’t a street dealer trapped in an undercover deal in the pub car park, or spotted selling his wares in person.
Owens was an online dealer who made use of the so-called Dark Web, shielded by the apparent anonymity of Tor, or The Onion Router.
Tor deliberately shuffles web traffic between a randomly-chosen list of participating computers, known as nodes, using multiple layers of encryption so that each node in the chain knows only about the existence of the immediately previous and immediately following nodes.
Owens was charged with supplying a range of prohibited gear, including cannabis resin, ecstasy and magic mushrooms.
He pleaded guilty.
According to The Guardian, detective who raided Owens last year found “detectives found drugs, digital scales and encryption software installed on his computer.”
Amusingly, of course, having encryption software installed on your computer isn’t prohibited – not yet, anyway – and anyone who uses OS X, iOS, Android, Linux or non-entry-level versions of Windows already has strong encryption installed and ready to activate whenever they want.
Indeed, we strongly recommend that you use full-device encryption, because it makes it much harder for a crook to dig out your personal data if your computer or phone is lost or stolen.
(Technically, iOS comes with full-device encryption already activated, but until you set a passcode or a password, the decryption key automatically supplied when you start up, so it’s not a secret.)
The bottom line in this story is that, encryption software or not, the web is not as anonymous as many people seem to think.
As the NCA notes in its news article about this bust:
The realisation that you can be tracked and identified on the dark web is beginning to sink in for online criminals.
As we mentioned above, Tor provides apparent anonymity, but your network traffic has to enter the Tor network from your computer, where surveillance software cannot only spot it, but perhaps even prioritise it as content of special interest to monitor.
Likewise, if you use Tor to access sites outside the Tor network, your scrambled traffic has to emerge from Tor at a so-called exit node.
And even though each node only knows its immediate neighbours, an exit node’s “next neighbour” is the site you were after, so a poisoned exit node can unmask you with ease.
Owens now has two years to ponder the highs and lows of “apparent anonymity.”