Child Porn Suspect Identified by University Attack on Tor Pleads Guilty

Gabriel Peterson-Siler was unmasked after an attack, likely carried out by Carnegie Mellon University, on the Tor network.

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Feb 2 2016, 6:22pm

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One of the criminal suspects identified by an attack on the Tor network likely carried out by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has pleaded guilty, according to court documents.

On Monday Gabriel Peterson-Siler pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography in a Seattle courtroom. An IP address for Peterson-Siler was provided to the FBI back in June 2014, and he was arrested the following April after officers found illegal images on his laptop.

Court documents in Peterson-Siler's docket make little mention of the evidence that led investigators to their suspect, but a related case revealed that the FBI's source of information was a "university-based research institute."

Circumstantial evidence indicates that research institute was Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute (SEI). Shortly after the publication of Motherboard's original report on these affected cases, the Tor Project, the non-profit that maintains the Tor software, claimed that the FBI paid researchers at SEI $1 million to carry out an attack that could reveal the real IP addresses of Tor hidden services and users. The FBI said that this claim was inaccurate, and CMU eventually published a well-crafted press release implying that it had been subpoenaed for its research results.

That attack was part of Operation Onymous, an international, multi-agency effort that saw the shuttering of just over two dozen Tor hidden services, including Silk Road 2.0, the successor to the original dark web drug marketplace.

It is unclear how many people have been charged due to the evidence obtained by the attack on Tor, but approximately 78 IP addresses that accessed the vendor section of Silk Road 2.0 were provided to the FBI, according to a search warrant in one of the affected cases.

As part of his plea agreement, Peterson-Siler admitted that in 2012 he created user accounts on three sites that hosted child pornography, and that he possessed more than 250 child pornography images on his laptop.

Meanwhile, in the related case of Brian Farrell, a Seattle man suspected of being a Silk Road 2.0 staff member and charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, defense lawyers are still trying to get access to more discovery evidence for their client. A sealed motion to compel discovery was filed late last month, and the government's response came on Monday, although that document is also sealed.

In fact, in hearings Peterson-Siler's lawyers had also requested access to additional discovery evidence, which might have given more insight into CMU's involvement. But now, because of Peterson-Siler's guilty plea, that request is moot.

The true extent of this attack on the Tor network remains to be seen. But if other defendants decide to plea out, then perhaps even less information about it is going to surface.