George Carlin once said, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” This applies to criminals as well.
If you believed the claims of politicians and law enforcers, you’d think that the invention of encryption and the tools it enables, like Tor and Bitcoin, is the end of law enforcement. We’re constantly told that without backdoor access to all encryption, the government is unable to thwart the schemes of terrorists, drug dealers, and child pornographers. Their claims assume that everybody using encryption is knowledgeable about it and technology in general. But real world criminals aren’t James Bond supervillains. They’re human beings, which means most of them are of average or below average intelligence.
The recent high profile child pornography site bust is a perfect example of this point:
He was taken aback by what he saw: Many of this child abuse site’s users—and, by all appearances, its administrators—had done almost nothing to obscure their cryptocurrency trails. An entire network of criminal payments, all intended to be secret, was laid bare before him.
He spotted what he was looking for almost instantly: an IP address. In fact, to Gambaryan’s surprise, every thumbnail image on the site seemed to display, within the site’s HTML, the IP address of the server where it was physically hosted: 22.214.171.124. He copied those 11 digits into his computer’s command line and ran a basic traceroute function, following its path across the internet back to the location of that server.
Incredibly, the results showed that this computer wasn’t obscured by Tor’s anonymizing network at all; Gambaryan was looking at the actual, unprotected address of a Welcome to Video server. Confirming Levin’s initial hunch, the site was hosted on a residential connection of an internet service provider in South Korea, outside of Seoul.
Janczewski knew that Torbox and Sigaint, both dark-web services themselves, wouldn’t respond to legal requests for their users’ information. But the BTC-e data included IP addresses for 10 past logins on the exchange by the same user. In nine out of 10, the IP address was obscured with a VPN or Tor. But in one single visit to BTC-e, the user had slipped up: They had left their actual home IP address exposed. “That opened the whole door,” says Janczewski.
Despite the use of several commonly cited tools that supposedly thwart law enforcement efforts, law enforcers were able to discover the location of the server hosting the site and identity of suspected administrators using old fashioned investigative techniques. This was possible because criminals are human beings with all the flaws that entails.
One thing this story illustrates is that it takes only a single slip up to render an otherwise effective security model irrelevant. It also illustrates that just because one is using a tool doesn’t mean they’re using it effectively. Despite what politicians and law enforcers often claim, Bitcoin makes no effort to anonymize transactions. If, for example, law enforcers know the identity of the owner of some Bitcoin and that individual knows the identify of the person buying some of that Bitcoin, it’s simple for law enforcers to identify the buyer. Popular legal crypto exchanges operating in the United States are required to follow know your customer laws, which means they know the real world identity of their users. If you setup an account with one of those exchanges and buy some Bitcoin, then law enforcers can determine your identity by subpoenaing the exchange. Even if the exchange you’re using doesn’t follow know your customer laws, if you connect to it without obscuring your IP address even once, it’s possible for law enforcers to identify you if they can identify and put pressure on the exchange.
No fewer than three mistakes were made by the criminals in this case. First, they falsely believed that Bitcoin anonymizes transactions. Second, they failed to obscure the real world location of the server. Third, one of the individuals involved connected to their Bitcoin exchange without a VPN once. These mistakes made their efforts to secure themselves against law enforcers useless.
When politicians and law enforcers tell you that the government requires backdoor access to encryption in order to thwart terrorists, drug dealers, and child pornographers, they’re lying. Their claims might have some validity in a world where every criminal was as brilliant as a James Bond supervillain, but we don’t live in that world. Here criminals are regular humans. They’re usually of average or below average intelligence. Even though they may know that tools to assist their criminal efforts exist, they likely don’t know how to employ them correctly.