You can only access a site called the “Hitman Network” if you use an anonymous router. But if you get there, a team of three alleged contract killers will entertain your offer to kill someone, so long as the target is not a major politician or a child under 16 years of age. The site does not take dollars or euros but bitcoins, the electronic currency invented in 2009.
The Hitman Network represents an extreme end of what some have called the dark web, or the part of the Internet used by criminals to sell and purchase everything from stolen credit card numbers to black tar heroin. One thing these sites have in common is their use of the instant and often anonymous currency of bitcoins and other kinds of online money, according to a new study released Wednesday by the cyber-security firm McAfee.
Raj Samani, McAfee’s chief technology officer and vice president for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, discovered the murder-for-hire website during his research into virtual currencies and Internet crime. “When I saw the Hitman Network, I made six phone calls to law enforcement contacts,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Samani’s latest paper, released Wednesday, traces the connection between electronic currencies and crime. It also documents how websites such as the Hitman Network are fueled by the perception that buying and selling services through virtual money is safe and anonymous. The paper, to be sure, says it could not confirm that the website follows through on its promise. “Verifying this would likely come at some personal risk,” the paper says.
The dark web has recently been in the crosshairs of law enforcement. On October 2, the FBI arrested the founder of the website Silk Road, which was used to sell drugs for bitcoins. The U.S. government alleged that Ross Ulbricht sought to use a murder-for-hire service to take out a former employee. Unfortunately for him, his alleged contact was an undercover U.S. agent.
In May, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan announced charges against Liberty Reserve, one of the Internet’s largest virtual currency companies, for money laundering. The prosecution against Liberty Reserve uncovered how easy it was to obtain the virtual currency without revealing one’s identity. Users of the service used names such as “Hacker Account” and gave addresses such as “123 Fake Main Street,” according to the prosecution.
Virtual money has been around since the mid-1990s. But the rise of Internet currency has fueled a global crime wave, according to Samani’s paper.
“The level of anonymity criminals believe they have is driving more traditional crime over to the Internet,” said Samani. He became interested in the dark web, he said, while researching his last paper, on how hackers were selling their services on the Internet to people with no expertise in computer coding. “We are seeing a wholesale transition,” he said. “This new research shows how easy it is to use this to conduct the crime but also pay for these crimes and obfuscate who you are.”
But while some criminals might think bitcoins will cover their tracks, the FBI has other means of catching the dark web’s buyers and sellers. To start, most of the dark web’s sites, including the Hitman Network, require the browser use something known as TOR, or The Onion Router. Developed in the 1990s by the U.S. Navy to cloak ship-to-ship communications, it works by routing an Internet request through a network of computers, obscuring the Internet Protocol address of the web user.
But TOR is not foolproof. While the National Security Agency has not yet been able to crack it, the agency is working on it. According to recent documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, cracking the network has been a high priority in recent years.
In addition, those using the dark web do make use of less secure communications. The Guardian published a piece earlier this month on how Silk Road’s Ulbricht mentioned his ambitions for creating an Internet drug market on his LinkedIn profile.
The FBI also has sought to spoof criminal websites to lure would-be criminals online. In 2012, the bureau arrested 24 suspects for credit card fraud after setting up a fake web forum for trading stolen credit card information.
“Just because you have that anonymity, law enforcement can still identify you,” Samani said.