Law enforcement agencies across the world are targeting the dark web. Whether that's through undercover buys of illegal weapons, or deploying malware to catch suspected pedophiles, cops have spent the past few years learning how to tackle criminals who make use of Tor hidden services.
But a theme has emerged throughout dark web crackdowns: Much of their presentation by law enforcement is little more than PR hype, designed to exaggerate the effectiveness of the operation, or how many agencies are actually involved.
In the most recent case, agencies from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and a slew of European countries announced a selection of arrests, and that they had allegedly identified thousands of dark web users. One of the participating agencies was the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a press release from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But the DEA said it never took part, in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by Motherboard.
"It has been determined that although DEA is listed as part of the operation, DEA did not have any participation," the response read.
In another example, two men were indicted for allegedly selling heroin and cocaine on AlphaBay, currently the largest dark web marketplace. That case was the work of the Central California Darknet Strike Force, and the investigation was led by the DEA, according to a US Attorney's Office press release last year.
Turns out, that was some hot air too. According to another Freedom of Information request response from the DEA, the Strike Force "was a name created by an Assistant United States Attorney for press release purposes. The strike force does not exist in DEA," the agency told Motherboard.
It's not just US agencies playing loose with the facts either. According to an internal Europol presentation, the agency claimed 2014's Operation Onymous led to over 600 dark web markets being closed down. But the FBI clarified it was instead around 400 URLs, relating to around a dozen sites, and independent researchers found law enforcement agencies had actually shuttered a load of scam or phishing sites too.
Let that be a warning: When cops announce the next dark web crackdown, maybe take the claims with a pinch of salt.