Large sections of a secretive layer of the internet, often used to criminal ends, have been taken down after the arrest of a 28-year-old Irishman accused of being behind the world’s biggest stashes of images of child sexual abuse by US authorities.
All sites hosted by Freedom Hosting, one of the biggest service providers on the Dark Net, which operates beneath the internet known to most users and maintains the anonymity of people involved, simultaneously disappeared on Sunday. Two days previously, Eric Eoin Marques, who many think to be Freedom Hosting’s boss, was put behind bars pending an extradition hearing later this week. US authorities accuse him of enabling images of child sex abuse to be displayed. If convicted, he faces 30 years in prison.
He was described as “the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet” by an FBI agent during his appearance in Ireland’s High Court last Friday.
Reports yesterday indicated that the US authorities, who have been hunting the head of Freedom Hosting for a year, may have used a software vulnerability to begin circulating malware on its system – which may have led them to Mr Marques and helped bring down the sites.
It is claimed that Mr Marques operated servers hosting many of the world’s most notorious websites. He has no previous convictions and has never come to the attention of the authorities before, the court heard.
While the apparently obscure Dubliner may not seem to fit the bill of an international crime figure, Martin Bryant of technology website the Next Web said that the nature of the internet makes it easier for people to engage in all sort of activities without arousing attention. “The thing with the internet is that it empowers people who might normally be very unassuming members of society to do things like this,” he said.
While the position of Mr Marques, who reportedly comes from a middle class Irish-Brazilian family, as the head of the Freedom Hosting company is unconfirmed, the timings of his arrest and its apparent shutdown are close.
The most well-known hidden services on the Tor network are perhaps the Silk Road, a black marketplace on which illegal goods are often advertised; and the TorMail service, a secure email service. The latter was part of last week’s takedown.
Mr Marques faces four charges in America. He appeared before Mr Justice Paul Gilligan in the Dublin High Court, who denied him bail pending a further appearance on Thursday.
Mr Marques, who has both Irish and US citizenship, was arrested on a Maryland warrant which contains charges of distributing and promoting child pornography on the internet.
Abuse images put on commercial sites, charity says
Commercial websites are being hijacked by hackers who then upload images of children being sexually abused, a leading online safety charity has warned. The Internet Watch Foundation cited the example of a furniture store’s website which was hacked, effectively making the images available to any customers browsing its site. The Google-funded charity said it had receive more than 200 reports in a six-week period recently. An IWF technical researcher, Sarah Smith, said: “It shows how someone, not looking for child sexual abuse images, can stumble across it.”