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Hidden Web Tor helps average users and criminals avoid government snooping

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Tor, free software downloadable from the Internet, allows users to send and receive encyrpted messages, and makes it difficult for authorities to track illicit transactions.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Michael Evron was visiting Bogota, Colombia, last year when he was arrested and charged with running an illegal drug network across 50 states and 34 countries.

U.S. prosecutors say Evron, 43, of Argentina was the computer whiz behind The Farmer's Market, a website on the hidden Tor network that specialized in marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms and other illegal drugs. The site, they say, raked in more than $1 million over a 22-month period.

“Basically, the allegation is that Evron is the one that kind of made it technologically feasible for this business to work,” said his lawyer Marc Agnifilo, a former federal prosecutor who works at the New York law firm of Brafman and Associates. “He's like the computer geek behind the scenes. But the computer geek is the one who actually makes the business go.”

Tor provides Internet anonymity for people to evade government snooping and censors, but it has become a haven for criminals and extremists, a Tribune-Review investigation found.

Hidden websites offer marijuana for $270 or a British passport at $4,000. Others advertise counterfeit money, illegal guns and hackers. One touts the services of a hit man for $10,000: “No children under 16 and no top 10 politicians.”

Users typically make payment via bitcoin, a hard-to-trace electronic currency not connected with any country. Some users say they have been scammed.

Providing protection

Officials at The Tor Project, a Massachusetts nonprofit that runs the network, say in a statement that the network does more good than bad: “Criminals can already do bad things. Since they're willing to break laws, they already have lots of options. ... Tor aims to provide protection for ordinary people who want to follow the law.”

The operators have no way of policing the network, said Alexander Volynkin, a researcher at CERT, a computer security research arm of Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.

“In the past, before Tor, dark corners of the Internet were still there,” Volynkin said. “I'm sure you could still download child pornography back in the day and you could still buy drugs and sell drugs online and all. It's just with this technology, the level of security is much higher than it was before, and it's definitely more accessible. You don't have to be a computer security expert to be able to access securely those websites.”

One site, Paradoxum, lists a menu of drugs such as Ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana. The hidden Internet provides an “amazing resource,” the website says, even as it warns customers not to use their real names.

“Be it the Deep web or not, behind Tor or not, certain precautions must be followed for us both to profit from dealing without ending up behind iron,” the website says.

Mistakes welcome

Investigators have little chance of finding criminals behind encryption services and a network like Tor — unless they make a mistake, said Joseph DeMarco, a former head of the cybercrime unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York whose law firm, DeVore & DeMarco, specializes in Internet and privacy matters.

“Do these technologies mean that there are some criminals who will never be caught? The answer is yes,” DeMarco said. “The truly, truly brilliant cyber criminals — they're the ones we never catch. We catch the stupid ones, the average-intelligence ones, and then the really brilliant ones that slip up.”

Federal investigators declined to say how they cracked The Farmer's Market.

Evron, a computer programmer, graduated from New York University and once worked for Wall Street financial titan Goldman Sachs. After his arrest, Evron helped authorities shut down the website and allowed his extradition to Los Angeles, where he awaits trial.

He was one of 15 people arrested, including one in the Netherlands, whom authorities allege were tied to the website. One unidentified person in Pittsburgh was arrested in the raid but released without being charged, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman said.

An undercover DEA agent bought more than 30 grams of LSD online for $2,160 on The Farmer's Market, posing as one of the site's 3,000 customers.

“Traffickers of illegal drugs may attempt to operate online in secrecy, utilizing special networks, anonymizers and covert currency transactions,” DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. “But none of that is beyond our reach. ... DEA is very proactive in keeping abreast of ever-evolving technological advancements.”

Agnifilo described his client as a thoughtful, principled guy who believed it made a difference that the website did not sell harder drugs such as heroin or cocaine. The site collected a percentage fee for connecting buyers with sellers. Agnifilo said he would be surprised if Evron made $50,000 a year from the operation.

“He's just one of these guys who's like, ‘I'll pull the covers off of this,' ” Agnifilo said. “He gets a kick out of designing computer programs that are hard to penetrate and effective. It's almost like an intellectual curiosity. He would have made a lot more money had he stayed at Goldman Sachs.”

The case has wowed people involved.

“This case is unlike any I've ever seen in my years in this office or even really heard about, given the nature and scope of it,” U.S. Judge Alicia G. Rosenberg said at a detention hearing. “You have a very sophisticated defendant, highly educated, highly intelligent, who was able to orchestrate a worldwide scheme to distribute drugs on an enormous scale.”

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