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Convictions keep coming in investigations of darknet sites

Kirk Cottom, 45, of Rochester, New York, was sentenced to six years in prison for accessing child pornography. He previously pleaded guilty to the charges on August 3, 2015.

Cottom is the 19th man to be convicted of child pornography-related charges stemming from an FBI investigation into websites residing on the so-called “darknet.” The darknet comprises online websites and other resources accessible only with special software, usually Tor. Tor is anonymizing software that conceals the location and identity of servers (computers that host websites) and users.

Authorities conducted a lengthy and high-tech investigation that apparently overcame the anonymizing capabilities of the darknet and resulted in the seizure of three high-profile child pornography websites. Last January, the man convicted of operating the servers that hosted the websites, Aaron McGrath, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In a separate investigation, the FBI in November 2014 seized a number of darknet sites that functioned as black markets where users could obtain prescription drugs, cannabis and other substances. The agency is maintaining strict secrecy around the specific methods used to find the locations and operators of the sites, and the extent to which the Tor network is compromised remains unknown.

Tor is used to conceal communication for all manner of purposes. Criminals can use it to distribute child pornography, but others use it to obtain medication without a doctor’s prescription or medical cannabis in jurisdictions where it remains illegal. Journalists and ordinary citizens also use it to circumvent government restrictions on free speech or even hide from abusive spouses.

If you use Tor for any purpose, you should be aware of the possibility that the network has been permanently compromised by the FBI. And if you are accused of any computer-related crime, contact the Brill Legal Group.