Bypassing Online Censorship

This post reiterates a theme this blog had for a long time. If you don’t own your publishing platform, you’re at the mercy of whoever does. I’m bringing this topic up again for two reasons. The first reason is as a response to the number of messages friends keep sending me about individuals or groups they follow, all of whom express opinions not in line with the party in power, being removed from the likes of Twitter and Facebook. The second reason is to give some historical context about the nature of avoiding censorship.

Whenever somebody alerts me that an anarchist, libertarian, Austrian economist, or any other individual outside of the mainstream gets banned from Twitter or Facebook, I roll my eyes. Of course they were removed. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, etc. are all services that depend on having a large user base. Any online service that depends on having a large user base is going to cater to the mainstream. Moreover, the mainstream attitude is very much in favor of censorship. In order to cater to the mainstream, these services will remove anybody who expresses ideals outside of the mainstream.

Censorship isn’t a new phenomenon. I will actually argue that it’s the norm rather than the exception. The concept of free speech as we understand it is the product of Enlightenment thinking. And while the Enlightenment was popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t as popular throughout the rest of the world and its popularity has waned significantly in Europe. But even Enlightenment thinkers often supported censorship of ideas they found especially distasteful.

Just as censorship isn’t a new phenomenon, neither is bypassing censorship. Anarchists are often targets of censorship. Not surprisingly many governments overtly censored anarchists, but even private publishers are often unwilling to publish and distribute material written by anarchists. As a result zines became a popular way for anarchists to publish and distribute their writings. Under the Soviet Union, any literature deemed counterrevolutionary (in other words any literature that showed the communist leadership as anything other than saints) was typically censored. The heavy handed censorship of the Soviet Union gave rise to Samizdat.

Both zines and Samizdat material were self-published works. The author or one of their associates would create copies using whatever means available, usually photocopies or hidden printing presses, to create copies of their works. Those copies were then distributed by hand. Often the copies would circulate from person to person. Zines and Samizdat material were typically crude because they were created with no budget and without the benefit of sophisticated printing equipment. Neither usually circulated far. A handful of copies would usually be traded amongst a handful of like minded individuals.

Today’s modern world has analogs to zines and Samizdat. Self-hosted services such as Mastadon and Element allow like minded individuals to communicate with each other via services that they can control. Peer-to-peer services such as Retroshare allow each individual to completely control their own node. It’s also possible to self-host a website. This blog is hosted on a server in my basement. There are also old school methods such as private e-mail lists that allow anybody with an e-mail client to connect to an e-mail server being hosted by a like minded individual.

The most common criticism of these services is that not everybody is on them. While true, this is a feature, not a bug, for anybody interested in distributing ideas outside of the mainstream. Do you think your grandparents are going to enjoy or be convinced by your radical posts on Facebook? If you do, you’re a fool. The only result of posting your non-mainstream ideas to centralized services used by the masses is its removal because eventually Karen is going to see it, she is going to be offended by it, and she is going to report it. Shortly after she reports it, it will be removed because the service needs her (or more specifically the masses who think like her) more than you.

The Purpose of Government Lists

Statists tend to believe that government lists are beneficial or at worst benign. They tend to believe that government has good cause for creating lists. That part is true. Government does have good cause for creating lists. But that cause is neither beneficial or benign. It’s to inflict ill on those they deem worthy of punishment.

The Attorney General of California just demonstrated this by publishing the name and home address of every carry permit holder in the state:

California Attorney General today announced new and updated firearms data available through the California Department of Justice (DOJ)’s 2022 Firearms Dashboard Portal. The dashboard is accessible though DOJ’s OpenJustice Data Platform. The announcement will improve transparency and information sharing for firearms-related data and includes broad enhancements to the platform to help the public access data on firearms in California, including information about the issuance of Concealed Carry Weapons (CCW) permits and Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs).

The Attorney General claims this is to improve transparency, but it’s obviously retaliation for the Supreme Court’s ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, which found that requiring carry permit applicants to provide proper cause violated the Second Amendment.

By publishing this information, the Attorney General provided burglars who want guns with a list of homes to hit, abusers who have lost track of their victims with their victim’s hiding places, and every other ne’er-do-well with the identities and home addresses of people whose only “crime” was to obtain a carry permit. Of course, this was the intent because the Attorney General is angry about not being able to deny California denizens the legal privilege of carry a means of self-defense.

Slavery Didn’t End

Yesterday was Juneteenth, a holiday to celebrate the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, based on news articles and social media posts, many if not most people are under the mistaken belief that Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery in the United States (and the anti-slavery laws and Thirteenth Amendment that followed), it changed the rules of slavery. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation people of African descent could be owned by private individuals in specific states. While the Emancipation Proclamation prohibited that practice, it didn’t prevent all forms of slavery.

In the post Emancipation Proclamation United States whether one can be a slave is no longer determined by skin color and whether one can own slaves is no longer determined by the state in which they reside. Instead whether one can be a slave is determined by criminality and the only legal slave owners are the federal and state governments and their contractors.

Yes, this post is yet another one of my rants about the existence of Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, state level versions of UNICOR such as MINNCOR, and government contracted private prisons. All of these organizations utilize slave labor, but many people seem to be willing to ignore this fact because the slaves are criminals. But I will again remind you that the legal system in the United States is so convoluted that the label criminal is effectively arbitrary. Back in 2011 the book Three Felonies a Day was published. The book pointed out that working professionals in the United States unknowingly commit an average of three felonies per day. The only reason they aren’t all criminals is because the state either hasn’t caught them or hasn’t enforced its laws against them. But if the state doesn’t like somebody it can chose to investigate them and enforce any of its numerous laws against them and thus make them a criminal.

So when you see news anchors, politicians, and celebrities celebrating an end to slavery, remember that slavery is still alive and well in the United States. The rules may have changed, but the practice never ended.

Conflicting Beliefs

An aspect of the human mind that amazes me is its ability to simultaneously hold multiple conflicting beliefs. This is described as cognitive dissonance. What amazes me more is that people demonstrating cognitive dissonance can point out when another person is demonstrating it while remaining ignorant of their own demonstration.

Debates about gun control are gold mines for witnessing cognitive dissonance. But the gold mine has become even richer with the popularization of the defund the police movement. At the root of the defund the police movement is the recognition of the true nature of law enforcement. Law enforcement doesn’t exist to protect the people. It exists to serve the interests of the state. A smart state takes measures to paper over this reality. It’ll keep its law enforcers on a tight leash to restrain them from exploiting too many people too severely. It’ll establish laws that provide law enforcers an excuse for their actions (“I was just following orders”). It’ll go through a great deal of effort to propagandize the masses into believing law enforcers exist to protect them. But eventually the leash slips. When it does, it can do a great deal of damage to the state’s propaganda efforts.

The murder of George Floyd by law enforcers was just one instance of the leash slipping. For some reason that instance garnered national attention and whipped people up into a riotous fury. It did a great deal of damage to the state’s propaganda efforts and revealed the true nature of law enforcement to many previously ignorant people.

You might think that with this recognition would come a general distrust of the government. But in many cases (maybe even most cases) it hasn’t. Many people espousing the need to defund the police also espouse a need to grant the state more power. Those in the defund the police movement who are also demanding more stringent gun control are a prime example of this. All government is ultimately a form of kleptocracy. Those in power use their power to expropriate wealth from the populace. The only thing that restrains those in power from devolving to their basest of instincts and stealing everything from everyone is fear. All but the most ignorant of the power holders recognize that there are orders of magnitude more people out of power than in power. If enough of those out of power become angry at those in power, they will revolt. If enough people revolt, they will win. Arms are a force multiplier. If those out of power are already armed, they can successfully revolt with fewer rebels.

If one recognizes that the purpose of law enforcement is to serve the interests of the state, they should also recognize that maintaining a force disparity between those out of power and law enforcers helps keep the latter in check. Law enforcers aren’t going to stop exploiting those out of power (doing so is their job after all). But if they hold some fear of those out of power, they are more likely exercise restraint. Even if they won’t exercise more restraint, their overlords, the power holders, will be more likely to restrain them because they don’t want a bunch of people with nothing to lose pissed off at them, especially when they’re armed (that’s how revolts start). The more force those out of power have compared to those in power, the more likely those in power are to keep their basest instincts in check.

But the human mind is an amazing thing and so many people who recognize, at least to some extent, the true nature of law enforcement and the state also simultaneously believe the law enforcement and the state should enjoy even more power.

The True Value of the Bill of Rights

One thing you can always count on here in the United States is that whenever a man made tragedy occurs, a sizable portion of the population will blame the Bill of Rights. Within my lifetime the most egregious example of this occurred after the 9/11 attacks. Citing the need to protect the citizenry, the United States government picked up its systemic campaign against the Bill of Rights with a renewed zeal. Although some of the actions taken during that campaign were later reversed, the citizenry ended up with fewer rights post-9/11 than it had pre-9/11. But this campaign against the Bill of Rights isn’t unique to tragedies similar in scale to the 9/11 attacks. It manifests after pretty much every man made tragedy that receives national attention.

I’ve made my opinions of the United States government, and every other government, very clear. I believe that government as a concept is awful and should be done away with. Anarchy, the state of not having a state, is far better than giving a handful of individuals absolute power and letting them do whatever they please to everybody else. I also hold a worldview that can be described as egoist. I don’t believe rights are god-given, self-evident, or in any way objective. To me rights are a concept that exist exclusively in the imaginations of individuals. With both said, I believe there is merit in many of the Enlightenment ideas upon which the United States was founded. The idea that a government should be subservient to its people, even if it is an impossible one, is meritorious as is the idea that individuals enjoy certain rights.

For those who haven’t read up on the history of the founding of the United States, the first federal governmental system was codified by the Articles of Confederation (which, despite the name, is unrelated to the Confederate States of America). The Articles of Confederation established a weak federal government and left most sovereignty to the individual states. It didn’t last long. The event that sealed the fate of the Articles of Confederation was Shays’ Rebellion. Even though Shays’ Rebellion was successfully put down by the existing governmental system (specifically Massachusetts’ state militia), power hungry politicians used the event to demand a stronger federal government. This sparked off a debate between two camps: those who wanted a stronger federal government, who are known to us as the Federalists, and those who opposed the idea, who are known to us as the Anti-Federalists.

The Anti-Federalists pointed out, correctly as we known with the benefit of hindsight, that the federal government then being proposed by the Federalists would eventually become tyrannical. While the Anti-Federalists weren’t able to stop the creation of a strong federal government, they did managed to get a concession: the Bill of Rights. As I’ve explained on this blog numerous times, the Bill of Rights failed to restrain the federal government. But that’s not to say it was a complete failure. The Bill of Rights at least slowed the rate at which federal power expanded. It accomplished this by requiring the federal government to address the Bill of Rights whenever it expanded its power over territory addressed by the Bill of Rights. Since the Constitution gave the federal government ultimate authority over interpreting the Constitution, those addresses usually ended with the federal government authorizing its own expansion of power. But once in a while a judiciary stomped down an attempted expansion or at least established a number of caveats. What so-called rights we enjoy today are the caveats established by those rare judiciaries that didn’t rubber stamp whatever the federal government was authorizing itself to do.

Fortunately, the legacy of the Anti-Federalists continues. Even today after most of the so-called rights mentioned in the Bill of Rights have been caveated into near nonexistence, debates about rights are still generally over degrees. Most debates about speech aren’t about whether an individual has a right to free expression; it’s taken for granted that the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of expression. Instead the debates are about how far free expression can go before it no longer falls under the protection of the First Amendment. While the difference is minor in the long run, the fact that the debate is framed in a way that free expression is guaranteed has kept it in a state of slow erosion instead of immediate annihilation.

Had the Anti-Federalists not managed to get the Bill of Rights included in the Constitution, we would likely live in a different political world.

Without the First Amendment, we would likely be subjected to an extensive list of prohibited forms of expression that ranged from criticism of the government to pornography. The question of who qualified as a journalist would likely be answered and the answer would be only individuals credentialed by the federal government (or maybe even the state governments if the federal government was feeling especially generous).

Without the Second Amendment, there would likely be no debate over what types of firearms an individual is allowed to own. All individual gun ownership would likely be prohibited.

Without the Fourth Amendment, law enforcers would likely be able to conduct random searches of your dwelling without even needing to make up probable cause to get a warrant. Civil forfeiture, where property can be seized if a law enforcer so much as suspects it’s related to a drug crime, would be the norm rather than the exception.

Without the Fifth Amendment, there would likely be no limit to the number of times an individual could be charged with the same crime. The state would be free to bring the same charges for the same crimes against an individual as many times as it needed to get a conviction.

But that wouldn’t matter because without the Sixth Amendment, individuals charged with a crime would likely not enjoy a trial by jury. While the jury system here in the United has flaws (many flaws), it’s still a step up from a Star Chamber.

The true value of the Bill of Rights is that it puts the federal government into an awkward position. In order to maintain the illusion that it is governed by a system of laws (which is the illusion upon which its legitimacy in the eyes of the masses is built), it cannot simply pass a law that curtails an enumerated right. Maintaining that illusion requires that any law curtailing a right must be accompanied by a lengthy campaign to convince the masses that the amendment or amendments that address that right don’t actually mean what they say. Furthermore, the illusion requires the federal government to entertain challenges to the law on constitutional grounds. Once in a while the federal government even needs to temporarily concede ground and wait for a more opportune time to curtail that right.

Had human imagination never conceived of the destructive force we call government or had the majority dismissed the it for the bad idea it is, the Bill of Rights and similar declarations of rights would be of little value. But we live in a world where the majority share a mass delusion, a delusion that says we need to vest power in a handful of individuals to prevent a handful of individuals from taking power. So long as the majority of people suffer from that contradictory delusion, the Bill of Rights and the concept of rights have value even if both are, like government, figments of our imaginations. When you find yourself in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, sometimes the only way to survive is to play a game of make-believe yourself.

Full Faith and Credit Continued

I wrote a post discussing the full faith and credit of the United States dollar compared to the value of Bitcoin. However, I want to add a comparison of the value of the dollar to another currency.

As many of you are certainly aware, the United States Congress was dissolved on October 12, 1859 by order of Emperor Norton. In addition to abolishing the United States Congress and winning a war against the reincarnation of George Washington, Emperor Norton also issued money. As a testament to his benevolence, he offered a one-to-one exchange rate between United States dollars and his currency. During some unrelated research into the glorious reign of Emperor Norton, I came across a 2018 auction for one of his $0.50 bills issued on August 1, 1878 that sold for $10,500.

In 1878 the exchange rate between United States dollars and Emperor Norton’s script was one to one. In 2018 the exchange rate was $21,000 to one.

Once I again I can only conclude that the full faith and credit of the United States isn’t worth what it used to be. On the other hand, the full faith and credit of Emperor North has skyrocketed, which is yet another sign of his legitimacy.

All hail, Emperor Norton! May he reign forever!

Bitcoin Bad, War Bucks Good

The trick to discrediting a new idea or technology is crafting a criticism onto which supporters or people at least open to the idea or technology will latch. A lot of effort has gone into discrediting cryptocurrencies, but most of them have fallen flat because they haven’t spoken to supporters or people open to the idea of cryptocurrencies. However, what I will call the energy scare seems to be gaining some traction. A short while back Mozilla announced that it would stop accepting proof-of-work cryptocurrencies ostensibly for environmental reasons. Now Wikimedia has made a similar announcement:

Wikimedia, the non-profit foundation that runs Wikipedia, has decided to stop accepting cryptocurrency donations following a three-month debate in which the environmental impact of bitcoin (BTC) was a major discussion point.

I’ve previously touched on the energy use of Bitcoin and how it compares to the US dollar. However, since the topic is being brought up again, I feel the need to make some more criticisms of the current critics of Bitcoin.

Mozilla and Wikimedia may not accept your Bitcoin, but both will happily accept your United States dollars. This is baffling because both organizations cite environmental reasons for not accepting Bitcoin, but the United States military is one of the largest polluters in the world:

Research by social scientists from Durham University and Lancaster University shows the US military is one of the largest climate polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more CO2e (carbon-dioxide equivalent) than most countries.

Why does this matter? Because one cannot claim to oppose Bitcoin for environmental reasons while also not opposing United States dollars for the same reasons. The United States dollar is inseparable from the United States military because the latter is necessary to maintain the value of the former:

The world relies on the U.S. dollar and U.S. treasuries, giving America unparalleled and outsized economic dominance. Nearly 90% of international currency transactions are in dollars, 60% of foreign exchange reserves are held in dollars and almost 40% of the world’s debt is issued in dollars, even though the U.S. only accounts for around 20% of global GDP. This special status that the dollar enjoys was born in the 1970s through a military pact between America and Saudi Arabia, leading the world to price oil in dollars and stockpile U.S. debt. As we emerge from the 2020 pandemic and financial crisis, American elites continue to enjoy the exorbitant privilege of issuing the ultimate monetary good and numéraire for energy and finance.

The dollar is backed by one thing: military might. Its value cannot be separated from the United States military anymore than Bitcoin’s value can be separated from the energy usage of its miners. Bitcoin’s current contribution to global pollution is a tiny fraction of the current contribution of the United States military. Therefore, if an organization wants to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly currencies, it would dump the dollar before Bitcoin.

But the here and now isn’t the only consideration. Let’s consider the future. Bitcoin miners have been transitioning towards renewable energy for quite some time. The United States military on the other hand has made no efforts towards doing the same. While Bitcoin miners are already working to become more environmentally friendly, the Commander and Chief of the United States military is only talking about how the military needs to become more environmentally friendly at some undetermined future date.

In conclusion the claims made and actions taken by Mozilla and Wikimedia are disingenuous at best. If either organization has real environmental concerns about the currencies they accept, they have a funny way of demonstrating it.

Dangers of Closed Platforms

I advocate for open decentralized platforms like Mastodon, Matrix, and PeerTube over closed centralized platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While popular open platforms don’t have the reach and user base of popular closed platforms, they also lack many of the dangers.

Two recent stories illustrate some of the bigger dangers of closed platforms. The first was Meta (the new name Facebook chose in its attempt to improve its public image) announcing that it will demand a near 50 percent cut of all digital goods sold on its platform:

Facebook-parent Meta is planning to take a cut of up to 47.5% on the sale of digital assets on its virtual reality platform Horizon Worlds, which is an an integral part of the company’s plan for creating a so-called “metaverse.”

Before Apple popularized completely locked down platforms, software developers were able to sell their wares without cutting in platform owners. For example, if you sold software that ran on Windows, you didn’t have to hand over a percentage of your earnings to Microsoft. This was because Windows, although a closed source platform, didn’t restrict users’ ability to install whatever software they wanted from whichever source they chose. Then Apple announced the App Store. As part of that announcement Apple noted that the App Store would be the only way (at least without jailbreaking) to install additional software on iOS devices and that Apple would claim a 30 percent cut of all software sold on the App Store.

Google announced a very similar deal for Android Devices, but with a few important caveats. The first caveat was that side loading, the act of installing software outside of the Google Play Store, would be allowed (unless a device manufacturer disallowed it). The second caveat was that third-party stores like F-Droid would be supported. The third caveat was that since Android is an open source project, even if Google did away with the first two caveats, developers were free to fork Android and release versions that restored the functionality.

The iOS model favors the platform owner over both third-party software developers and users. The Android model at least cuts third-party software developers and users a bit of slack by giving them alternatives to the officially support platform owner app store (although Google makes an effort to ensure its Play Store is favored over side loading and third-party stores). Meta has chosen the Apple model, which means anybody developing software for Horizon Worlds will be required to hand nearly half of their earnings to Meta. This hostility to third-party developers and users is compounded by the fact that Meta could at any point change the rules and demand an even larger cut.

The second story illustrating the dangers of closed centralized platforms is Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter:

Elon Musk on Wednesday offered to personally acquire Twitter in an all-cash deal valued at $43 billion. Musk laid out the terms of the proposal in a letter to Twitter Chairman Bret Taylor that was reproduced in an SEC filing.

This announcement has upset a lot of Twitter users (especially those who oppose the concept of free speech since Musk publicly support the concept). Were Twitter an open decentralized platform, Musk’s announcement would have less relevance. For example, if Twitter were a federated social media service like Mastodon, users on Twitter could simply migrate to another instance. Federation would allow them to continue interacting with Twitter’s users (unless Twitter block federation, of course), but from an instance not owned and controlled by Musk. But Twitter isn’t open or decentralized. Whoever owns Twitter gets to make the rules and users have no choice but to accept those rules (or migrate to a completely different platform and deal with the Herculean challenge of convincing their friends and followers to migrate with them).

I often point out that if you don’t own a service, you’re at the mercy of whoever does. As an end user you have no power on closed platforms like iOS and Twitter. With open platforms you always have the option to self-host or to find an instance run in a manner you find agreeable.

They’re Called Dumbbells for a Reason

Before I begin my rant, I want to note that the etymology of dumbbell is more interesting than “stupid barbell,” but I’m allowed a bit of artistic license on my own blog. With that out of the way, let me get into this rant.

I still don’t (and likely never will) understand the modern obsession of taking perfectly functional things and making them dysfunctional by connecting them to the Internet. Nike still holds the crowning achievement for its “smart” shoes that became bricked by a firmware update. But the quest to match or exceed Nike continues. Nordictrack is obviously gunning for the crown with its “smart” dumbbells:

There are two things that make the iSelect dumbbells “smart.” The first is that these use an electronic locking mechanism, as opposed to pins or end screws. The second is that you can change the weights using voice commands to Alexa. Though, fortunately, you don’t have to since there’s also a knob that lets you change the weights manually.

[…]

Setting up the dumbbells is easy. All you’ve got to do is download the iSelect app for iOS or Android and then follow the prompts to pair the dumbbells over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. (The latter is for firmware updates.)

Perhaps I’m showing my age, but why in the hell would anybody want to take perfectly functional weighted chunks of metal and complicate them by adding wireless connectivity, voice commands, a phone app, and firmware updates? Changing weights on adjustable dumbbells isn’t complicated or time consuming. And if you, like the author of the linked article, are concerned about the ruggedness of a physical retaining mechanism, why would you have any faith in a mechanism that is electronically controlled?

If you want adjustable dumbbells, there are a lot of excellent options on the market. Rouge Fitness makes dumbbell bars that accept plate weights. Powerblocks are oddly shaped, but built like tanks. There is also the Nüobell, which maintains a classic dumbbell profile. All of these options are within $100 (after the addition of weights for the Rouge bell and assuming you get the 50 lbs. version of the Nüobell) of the Nordictrack iSelect, are built significantly better, and won’t stop working because the manufacturer pushed out a botched firmware update. There are also adjustable dumbbells on Amazon that are much cheaper than any of these.

There’s no reason to make dumbbells “smart.” The feature set of the iSelect demonstrates that. The only thing the “smarts” let you do is adjust the weight of the dumbbells with Alexa voice commands (and brick the dumbbells with a bad firmware update, of course). And according to the article, the voice commands are slower than using the physical knob on the stand so that single feature is more of a hindrance than a benefit.

As another aside, I chuckled when the article listed “No mandatory subscription” under the pros. The prevalence of tying “smarts” to subscriptions is so great that a “smart” device can earn points by simply continuing to function if you don’t pay a subscription fee. That tells you more than you might realize about “smart” devices.

Averages Apply to Criminals Too

George Carlin once said, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” This applies to criminals as well.

If you believed the claims of politicians and law enforcers, you’d think that the invention of encryption and the tools it enables, like Tor and Bitcoin, is the end of law enforcement. We’re constantly told that without backdoor access to all encryption, the government is unable to thwart the schemes of terrorists, drug dealers, and child pornographers. Their claims assume that everybody using encryption is knowledgeable about it and technology in general. But real world criminals aren’t James Bond supervillains. They’re human beings, which means most of them are of average or below average intelligence.

The recent high profile child pornography site bust is a perfect example of this point:

He was taken aback by what he saw: Many of this child abuse site’s users—and, by all appearances, its administrators—had done almost nothing to obscure their cryptocurrency trails. An entire network of criminal payments, all intended to be secret, was laid bare before him.

[…]

He spotted what he was looking for almost instantly: an IP address. In fact, to Gambaryan’s surprise, every thumbnail image on the site seemed to display, within the site’s HTML, the IP address of the server where it was physically hosted: 121.185.153.64. He copied those 11 digits into his computer’s command line and ran a basic traceroute function, following its path across the internet back to the location of that server.

Incredibly, the results showed that this computer wasn’t obscured by Tor’s anonymizing network at all; Gambaryan was looking at the actual, unprotected address of a Welcome to Video server. Confirming Levin’s initial hunch, the site was hosted on a residential connection of an internet service provider in South Korea, outside of Seoul.

[…]

Janczewski knew that Torbox and Sigaint, both dark-web services themselves, wouldn’t respond to legal requests for their users’ information. But the BTC-e data included IP addresses for 10 past logins on the exchange by the same user. In nine out of 10, the IP address was obscured with a VPN or Tor. But in one single visit to BTC-e, the user had slipped up: They had left their actual home IP address exposed. “That opened the whole door,” says Janczewski.

Despite the use of several commonly cited tools that supposedly thwart law enforcement efforts, law enforcers were able to discover the location of the server hosting the site and identity of suspected administrators using old fashioned investigative techniques. This was possible because criminals are human beings with all the flaws that entails.

One thing this story illustrates is that it takes only a single slip up to render an otherwise effective security model irrelevant. It also illustrates that just because one is using a tool doesn’t mean they’re using it effectively. Despite what politicians and law enforcers often claim, Bitcoin makes no effort to anonymize transactions. If, for example, law enforcers know the identity of the owner of some Bitcoin and that individual knows the identify of the person buying some of that Bitcoin, it’s simple for law enforcers to identify the buyer. Popular legal crypto exchanges operating in the United States are required to follow know your customer laws, which means they know the real world identity of their users. If you setup an account with one of those exchanges and buy some Bitcoin, then law enforcers can determine your identity by subpoenaing the exchange. Even if the exchange you’re using doesn’t follow know your customer laws, if you connect to it without obscuring your IP address even once, it’s possible for law enforcers to identify you if they can identify and put pressure on the exchange.

No fewer than three mistakes were made by the criminals in this case. First, they falsely believed that Bitcoin anonymizes transactions. Second, they failed to obscure the real world location of the server. Third, one of the individuals involved connected to their Bitcoin exchange without a VPN once. These mistakes made their efforts to secure themselves against law enforcers useless.

When politicians and law enforcers tell you that the government requires backdoor access to encryption in order to thwart terrorists, drug dealers, and child pornographers, they’re lying. Their claims might have some validity in a world where every criminal was as brilliant as a James Bond supervillain, but we don’t live in that world. Here criminals are regular humans. They’re usually of average or below average intelligence. Even though they may know that tools to assist their criminal efforts exist, they likely don’t know how to employ them correctly.