Despite outrage from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and an ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation, the revenge pornographers of “Marines United” are alive and well.
Explicit photos of U.S. servicewomen and female veterans that turned up in the private Facebook group at the center of the armed services’ nude photo scandal are now available for purchase on the “dark web,” the shadowy network of digital enclaves hidden from public discovery by search engines. That’s according to a Daily Beast report this morning by journalist and Marine veteran James LaPorta:
On the private Facebook group Marines United 214, requests for nude photographs are met with demands for payment and links to the dark-web marketplace AlphaBay, where the photo-sets are listed for sale.
AlphaBay is not accessible through normal search methods, because it isn’t indexed by Google or other common web-browsing software. A user must know the actual web address (URL) and to avoid detection use a TOR browser, which is an open-source, encrypted web browser free of tracking software.
According to LaPorta’s investigation, these “descendant” groups — which are dealing not only in nude photos but T-shirts and “challenge coins” commemorating the original “Marines United” group — appear to have no direct connection to the U.S. military. Instead, they appear to be “copycat groups set up by foreign nationals to profit from the original group’s notoriety.”
That’s a particularly troubling detail in light of the recent discovery that troves of photos showing American military personnel engaged in sexual activity were up for sale on an “online criminal marketplace” operated out of Russia, according to a Military Times investigation published last week.
This alleged marketplace, as Military Times wrote, “ serious questions about the extent to which these photos — purportedly numbering in the thousands — could be exploited by foreign governments, or other entities seeking to influence or undermine the United States.”
The latest revelations further complicate ongoing efforts by both lawmakers and military investigators to respond to the culture of sexual abuse and online harassment that rocked the armed services in early March. Since the scandal broke, NCIS investigators have identified at least 27 individuals who engaged in “criminal activity” around the non-consensual production and distribution of illicit photos, 15 of whom are active-duty Marines.
But since NCIS first announced its investigation, members of “Marines United” have actively sought to defy both military and federal officials. As Task & Purpose reported in March, members of the infamous Facebook group have continued to form new forums to share troves of photos, taunting both lawmakers and military leaders in an act of defiance.
By burrowing deeper into the dark web, LaPorta notes, these budding revenge pornographers will only complicate an investigation that’s seen military investigators play whack-a-mole with an endless string of successor forums. From his report:
[Digital crime researcher Stephen] Pearson said TOR browsers encrypt users’ messages and data and make it difficult, if not impossible, for investigators to find the dark site or track the networks. He sees AlphaBay as a direct descendant of Silk Road, another dark-web marketplace which was shut down after investigators received help from the National Security Agency and foreign governments.
The dark web “makes it much more difficult for an investigator,” Pearson said. “That’s why it took almost three years for the task force working on Silk Road. It wasn’t that they solved it by technology. The guy who was running Silk Road… the reason they caught him was he posted a message in a forum a year or so prior, where he used an alias that he also used later, as his alias on Silk Road. They were able to identify him by the mistake he made in the open web.”
If one thing is certain, it’s that the digital violation of servicewomen and female veterans is no longer a problem confined solely to the military — and it’s going to be harder than ever for investigators to finally stamp out abuse and exploitation lurking in the Internet’s darkest corners.