When bitcoin was first introduced, one of the concerns was that it was being used as a form of payment for questionable and/ or illegal transactions, such as those on the now-defunct marketplace Silk Road. The reason it was so popular for such transactions was because it provided an untraceable way to pay for items, but that seems to be changing.
Researchers recently discovered that they were able to unmask some dark web users by linking them to bitcoin wallets that were used for transactions on the dark web. As a result, the anonymity once offered by bitcoin seems to be coming to an end, at least for those conducting transactions via the dark web.
Researchers identify dark web uses via bitcoin
The dark web is basically the part of the World Wide Web that casts a shadow over users’ activities. Certain software is required to hide one’s traffic on the Internet, and the dark web consists of parts of the World Wide Web that search engines do not index. Small peer-to-peer networks and larger networks such as Tor make up the deep web, and it was Tor that was the area of focus for researchers at Qatar University and Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha.
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This week they revealed the findings from their recent study of bitcoin transactions on the dark web. They were able to identify about 125 different users by linking them to their bitcoin wallets. They did this by connecting payments made in bitcoin on a website in the dark web to the user’s public account. They found it very easy to make these connections in over 20 different cases on Silk Road, which was shut down a few years ago by U.S. authorities. The researchers were even able to link buyers’ names and even their locations with the bitcoin transactions.
Israeli startup monitors bitcoin transactions on the dark web
The same week the Qatar researchers revealed their findings on bitcoin use on the dark web, an Israeli startup is spreading details on the tool it built to do the same thing. Webhose management told Independent.ie that their new Dark Web product has enabled them to expand their client base to include cyber-security groups, money laundering firms and law enforcement agencies. Their feed runs on the Tor network and covers millions of webpages.
The company explained that although there is some legal content, it also contains a lot of “illicit marketplaces” offering sales of drugs, illegal porn, identity, fraud, weapons and credit card information. Webhose cofounder Ran Geva even said that bitcoin users are posting their bitcoin wallet and cryptocurrency transaction details on message boards on the dark web, making it very easy to track them and their identities.
Users have already been shifting from bitcoin
It should come as no surprise that dark web users who want to hide their online activities for more reasons than just basic personal privacy would be the first to realize that bitcoin’s anonymity had been severely compromised. A recent analysis revealed that such users have already been switching from bitcoin to newer cryptocurrencies, such as monero, Zcash and dash.
Chainalysis, a forensics firm, reported recently that only 1% of transactions completed on the dark web is conducted in bitcoin, a sharp decline from the 30% of transactions that used to be conducted in bitcoin. Chainalysis also picked up a sharp increase in the use of monero there.