15:26How bitcoin payments unmasked a man who hired a Dark Web contract killer
An Italian citizen’s apparent attempt to hire a hitman on the Dark Web has been undone by clever analysis of his Bitcoin transactions. The man, who is reported to be an IT worker employed by a major corporation, is alleged to have paid the hitman to assassinate his former girlfriend.
Europol is the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation. Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, they assist the EU member states in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism.
Unmasking Bitcoin transactions
In their press release Europol states:
Europol carried out an urgent, complex crypto-analysis to enable the tracing and identification of the provider from which the suspect purchased the cryptocurrencies.
It was able to do this because Bitcoin transactions are all recorded in a public ledger called a blockchain. The Bitcoin blockchain records every transaction ever made using the currency in its blockchain, making it a perfect source for big data investigations. With the proper tools investigators can follow and back-track payments. Although Bitcoin transactions don’t record the names of the people involved, they do record the wallet addresses that sent or received money. If police can link a wallet address to a real individual, they can trace that individual’s credits and debits.
Exchanges where non-digital money and crypto-currencies get exchanged are an established weak spot in the chain for criminals, since users often have to hand over personally identifiable information before they can use one. If the police can trace bitcoin payments back to a bitcoin purchase at a legitimate exchange they can subpoena the exchange for the bitcoin owner’s personal details.
Unmasking Dark Web activity
For example, Dark Web sites can reveal their links to hosting companies or regular websites through misconfigured SSL certificates or leaky server-status pages, among other things. And real people can accidentally unmask themselves through any number of mistakes, from EXIF data in photos to reusing their Reddit account username on a Dark Web market.
Anonymity and privacy researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis has written a tool called OnionScan to help Dark Web site operators identify the kind of operational security leaks or software misconfigurations, like shared SSH keys, which can connect Dark Web sites to each other, or to clear web sites. You can find information about her work on onionscan.org.
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