Feds seek to shed some light on the darknet of Reddit

Reddit users of a subreddit known as /r/darknetmarkets are being targeted by law enforcement in the United States. The Baltimore Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement has sent a subpoena seeking details of select users.

The subreddit which deals with discussion of the underground drug scene carried out on what is known as the “dark web” has been targeted by law enforcement hoping to catch up with certain users who could be of interest to them.

What is the Dark Web?

The term “dark web” has become a well known name in recent years and with high profile busts such as those of Ross Ulbricht allegedly of the huge Silk Road drugs bazaar knowledge of the underground web scene has entered the awareness of the general public.

The dark web consists of what can be classed underworld websites or those centred on murky subjects. From drug sales to gun sales and hit men to counterfeiting, the dark web contains it all. Accessed through the TOR network these hidden websites are not available on the standard internet but require a special tool to become visible.

With knowledge of these underground systems growing and access relatively easy to achieve even by a beginner, the so-called dark web has exploded. While TOR and other systems do have legitimate uses and many users are completely law abiding citizens there is an element who flock to the dark web to partake in recreational drug activity and other less socially acceptable pastimes.

Public discussion of drugs

While drugs are bought and sold and money transferred via the dark web actual discussion of these topics has become extremely public and partly due to greater awareness of the existence of these underground markets by those less technically able.

Reddit calls itself “the front page of the internet” and is described as an “entertainment, social networking and news website” by Wikipedia is an extremely popular forum type website where users can discuss topics of all natures. Split into sub-categories known as subreddits users gather to discuss certain topics under one heading.

It appears strange that users brazenly discuss these types of topics on a public web forum, especially one as popular and well known as Reddit. As far as I am aware discussion alone as long as users are not self-incriminating themselves is not illegal however it appears that what is discussed there has caught the attention of the law enforcement agencies in the United States.

Users details targeted

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued Reddit with a subpoena which is similar to a court order demanding that Reddit hand over the data stored on certain users of the /r/darknetmarkets forum.

The subpoena is requesting details of 5 users who had previously taken part in the discussion of a drug, weapons and financial market called Evolution. The site in question vanished in March of 2015 when the owners quit while they were ahead allegedly stealing a large portion of the digital currency Bitcoin to the tune of $12 million, much to the annoyance of the users.

The DHS are requesting as much detail as Reddit holds for the 5 users in question which includes details that Reddit do not even require to sign up. Information such as name, IP addresses, dates and times of site visits and extended details such as users’ phone numbers and financial detail are being sought.

As Reddit doesn’t require details such as phone numbers or financial details plus allows sign up without supplying an email address it appears that the most useful data will be the IP addresses of users and the times and dates of site access. From these details alone law enforcement can then further subpoena the ISP of the users should they be US based or cooperate with international agencies to learn the true identities of the users.

One particular user in question known as NSWGreat was supposedly well-connected within the Evolution drug market and will be a high profile target for law agencies. One would assume that any security conscious user especially who is claiming to be involved in illegal activity would be accessing Reddit via the TOR anonymising network or a Virtual Private Network to obfuscate his or her IP Address. As past experience has shown many users who have been caught for similar illegal activity the weak link in the chain has always been user error.

Reddit does collect users IP addresses and like many services stores these for a period of time. The future could be bleak for users carrying out illegal activity and discussing it on public forums if efforts have not been made to disguise their online fingerprint.

Regardless of the issue of legality it again goes to show that a user’s identity is at risk of being tracked or revealed by visiting everyday websites.