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The FBI says it obtained the information through a leaky CAPTCHA, but what do the facts say?
Back in August 2013, Reuters revealed that the DEA was receiving information from the NSA about suspects who had no connection to terrorism. Worse still, the NSA then gave tips to the DEA on how to hide that fact from the entire justice system, including judges and defense attorneys.
How a law enforcement agency obtains its evidence is key to trials in America. The technique is called “parallel construction” but a more accurate name would be “evidence fabrication” and the report was concerning to anyone who cares if our justice system has any shred of justice in it.
If law enforcement lies about how it obtained evidence, then it is lying about the credibility of its evidence. Lying about the credibility of evidence is no better than lying about evidence itself. If a judge cannot properly determine how much weight something should hold, or if it should be admissible at all, then how can he or she be expected to come to a fair and just verdict?
By playing loose and fast with the rules, law enforcement is destroying the very systems they claim to protect. It is those kinds of shenanigans that Ross Ulbricht's defense says the government used in the investigation that eventually led to Ulbricht's arrest. Ross Ulbricht is accused of running the Silk Road Marketplace and has been charged with several crimes, including money laundering, narcotics trafficking and a “Kingpin” charge that is normally reserved for the heads of organized crime elements. Ross has plead Not Guilty to all charges.
The key point of contention between the defense and the prosecution at the present moment centers on how the FBI tracked down the Silk Road's servers. The Defense argues that it was done without a warrant, possibly in conjunction with the NSA. The FBI contends that it was the Silk Road's own security lapses, in this case a leaky CAPTCHA service that leaked the information.
We don't know how the FBI obtained the Silk Road's IP address, because the one thing we do know is that it wasn't done the way they said they did it.
For those who haven't been following along: The Silk Road was an online anonymous marketplace that allowed for the selling of anything, legal or illegal, for Bitcoin. Since eBay and Amazon have the majority of the legal market on lock-down, most of the goods and services on the Silk Road happened to fall on the illegal side. Since you can't exactly make a site called wesellillegalthings.com and expect it to not be shut down, it ran inside of the Tor network.
The Tor network is a bit like an internet within an internet. Users can use it to browse sites anonymously by going in and out of its nodes, but they can also visit sites that exist in between those nodes, commonly referred to as “hidden services.” This allows users to run a website or service while making is much more difficult for authority types (or anyone else) to figure out who is running the site.
There are some vulnerabilities in the Tor network, and the Government pointed to them in their affidavit. However, the examples they pointed to all applied to Tor users, not the Tor hidden services like the Silk Road. Those are generally seen as secure.
The FBI investigator claims that he figured out the IP address of the Silk Road's Icelandic servers by monitoring information packets sent out from a CAPTCHA service that existed outside of the Tor Network.
Reputable security expert Nik Cubrilovic has a complete break down on exactly why the government's story is impossible. The most damning evidence is that the CAPTCHA used on the Silk Road was not a third party CAPTCHA service but the same CAPTCHA service used by Tor itself.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the FBI managed to obtain the Silk Road's server location in another fashion, without the NSA's help. There were known vulnerabilities in the Silk Road's security. The problem is those methods would have required a bit more sleuthing and may have reached a level that makes obtaining a warrant necessary, even in this post-9/11 world where Judges generally give law enforcement whatever they want.
The prosecution has focused on the defense's concerns about NSA parallel construction, painting it as the paranoid delusions of someone who is desperate. But the fact of the matter is, the FBI's story simply does not add up. Once it becomes apparent that the FBI is lying about how it obtained evidence, regardless if the NSA helped or not, they have perverted the trial's results and by proxy, the entire Justice System. That is something that should concern not only the Bitcoin community, but every individual who believes in justice.
Ross Ulbricht's trial is set for November 3rd. You can donate to his legal defense here. Bitcoin evangelist Roger Ver has pledged to back donations made by the community whenever donations reach over US $20,000 in a month.
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