In a special exposé published by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agents “exposed” ICE’s role in darknet investigations. The report described the way ICE aided in the takedown of Silk Road and how ICE is currently combating deepweb activity.
“The Darknet is not a very sophisticated or special place; it just requires specific permission or access to get into it,” Cyber Crimes Center Deputy Assistant Director (DAD), Patrick Lechleitner said.
Since ICE operates under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency is most known for their hand in border control. Crimes that involve the US borders such as illegal immigration, human trafficking, and physical drug importation have been the usual focus. However, the recently published report sheds light on the extended reach ICE has through the The Cyber Crimes Center (C3).
The Silk Road takedown began after a DHS investigation titled “Operation Dime Store.” Small drug seizures were taking place at the Chicago mail hub at O’Hare International Airport. The seizures were unusual, ICE explained, and were not commonly received through mail. The shipments “were coming from international sources in abundance, and were being shipped all over the United States,” agents said.
ICE was brought in to find to the specific source of the drugs. Packages were intercepted and analyzed to exhaustion. According to the investigators, discovering that the drugs were coming from Silk Road vendors did not take long.
After discovering the Silk Road, ICE changed the focus of the investigation. “We analyzed the fingerprints on packaging, analyzed seized drugs, looked for trends and clues that could lead us to where the site was hosted and made undercover purchases to infiltrate the website,” SA Der Yeghiayan explained. “We wanted to identify the vendors.” Silk Road needed to be taken down.
SA DerYeghiayan went undercover “and eventually became a top lieutenant for the Silk Road website,” Lechleitner said. Yeghiayan was the case agent throughout the Silk Road investigation. He first-hand analyzed drugs that were seized by postal services, collected evidence, and interrogated suspects. The arrest of suspected vendors often included participation from Yeghiayan, given the unique insight he was able to provide.
DerYeghiayan served as the lead witness for the US in the Silk Road case, the exposé explained. Without the agent’s work, Ulbricht would not have been found guilty on all counts. ICE ensured Ulbricht’s double life sentence by cementing evidence on the following charges: continuing criminal enterprise, hacking, drug smuggling, money laundering and document fraud.
SA DerYeghiayan said, “The most satisfying part of this investigation was shutting down the website and stopping the dangerous flow of drugs and weapons across the world; it was very important for me to shut down that website.”
Following the fall of Silk Road, ICE started adapting to the growing sector. Lechleitner explains:
ICE HSI takes a straightforward role in combating illegal activity on the Darknet. Their workload has increased in recent years as criminal activity has infiltrated the cyber environment. As a criminal investigative unit, HSI and its agents combat criminal activity on the Darknet the same way they do offline: one step at a time.
“This case, along with Black Market Reloaded, represented a new and evolving area, cyber investigation, for law enforcement that continues to this day,” said Lechleitner.
ICE believes that stopping darknet activity is required to fully protect US citizens.
Lechleitner explained that the average American faces many risks from the activity taking place on the darknet. The very nature of the darknet, ICE reported, relates itself to the personal identification of American citizens being stolen. Furthermore, the counterfeit pharmaceuticals puts individuals in a potentially risky situation.
In a takeaway, Lechleitner warned: “…If you are conducting any illicit activity on the darkweb, there are consequences and federal law enforcement is watching.”