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During a Thursday bail hearing held in Dublin, supervisory special agent Brooke Donahue told the Irish court that Freedom Hosting hosted more than 100 child porn Tor sites which sported "thousands of members" who had collectively posted "millions of images" involving the abuse of children, reported Ireland's Independent.
Donahue described Marques as being "the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet" and the sole administrator behind the Freedom Hosting service. Donahue also told the court that the bureau found that Marques had visited some of the Freedom Hosting sites that were distributing child pornography, and that before his arrest, Marques appeared to be researching ways of relocating both himself and his servers to Russia, in an apparent attempt to avoid extradition. Marques ultimately was denied bail.
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Freedom Hosting, which is unaffiliated with the Tor Project, offered Tor hidden service sites. Denoted by an ".onion" domain name, these sites can be reached only via the Tor anonymizing network, and their true geographic location and hosting details are obscured via multiple layers of routing. But at some point in July, Donahue told the Irish court, the FBI seized control of the Freedom Hosting servers, which were being hosted by an unnamed French service provider. The FBI said that Marques had paid for the hosting, using an account at a Las Vegas bank, and that after the FBI took over the servers, Marques managed to reset their access passwords and temporarily regain control.
Marques still faces the prospect of extradition based on charges -- still under seal -- which were filed in July in federal court in Maryland, which is where the FBI's child-exploitation task force is based, reported Wired.
The FBI had already been identified as the likely culprit behind the July hack of the Freedom Hosting site, which was used to make the site serve malware that targeted users of the Tor Browser Bundle (TBB), which is a version of Firefox customized to use the anonymizing Tor network. The relatively benign malware appeared to transmit -- via HTTP -- the unique MAC address of the infected PC, as well as its Windows hostname, reported Wired. That would have allowed authorities to identify the IP address of the PC and unmask individual Tor users.
All versions of the TBB that have been updated since June 26 are patched against the flaw, apparently exploited by the FBI.
Tor is celebrated by civil liberty and privacy groups for offering anonymity to whistleblowers and dissidents. But the service has also drawn criticism for being used not just for distributing child pornography, but also for onion sites such as Silk Road, which facilitates the buying and selling of narcotics.
Just how much of the Tor network facilitates illegal activities? Last month, three University of Luxembourg researchers who conducted a study of Tor hidden services reported that "while the content of Tor hidden services is rather varied, the most popular hidden services are related to botnets." Their report, titled "Content And Popularity Analysis Of Tor Hidden Services," is based on their use of a documented flaw -- now patched -- in Tor, which allowed them to count 39,824 unique onion addresses in February 2013.
Reviewing what appeared to be the 20 most popular Tor addresses, the researchers found that 11 -- including all of the top five sites -- were botnet command-and-control servers, while five provided adult content. Also on the top 20 list was Silk Road, which placed 18th, well ahead of Freedom Hosting (27th). Interestingly, the researchers even discovered a phishing site disguised as the Silk Road.
On balance, however, the researchers found a balance between licit and illicit sites. "The number of hidden services with illegal content or devoted to illegal activities and the number of other hidden services -- devoted to human rights, freedom of speech, anonymity, security, etc. -- is almost the same; among Tor hidden services one can even find a chess server," the researchers wrote.
As that suggests, many tools can be freely used by people with good or bad intentions. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said as much Sunday, when he delivered a talk on "the tension between security and liberty" that touched on the intelligence community's imperative to eavesdrop on some Gmail communications, The Washington Post reported.
"Gmail is the preferred Internet service provider of terrorists worldwide," said Hayden, who instead of "Internet service provider" most likely meant "email service."
Then again, the alleged use of Gmail by terrorists shouldn’t come as a surprise. "I don't think you're going to see that in a Google commercial, but it's free, it's ubiquitous, so of course it is" used that way, Hayden said.
Of course, Tor and Gmail are far from the only free tools to be used for illicit purposes. In July, notably, security researchers reported that Chinese groups have been using Dropbox to distribute malware for online espionage operations.