The FBI claims that it found the Silk Road server by examining plain text Internet traffic to and from the Silk Road CAPTCHA, and that it visited the address using a regular browser and received the CAPTCHA page. But [Nicholas] Weaver says the traffic logs from the Silk Road server (PDF) that also were released by the government this week tell a different story.
“The server logs which the FBI provides as evidence show that, no, what happened is the FBI didn’t see a leakage coming from that IP,” he said. “What happened is they contacted that IP directly and got a PHPMyAdmin configuration page.” See this PDF file for a look at that PHPMyAdmin page. Here is the PHPMyAdmin server configuration.
But this is hardly a satisfying answer to how the FBI investigators located the Silk Road servers. After all, if the FBI investigators contacted the PHPMyAdmin page directly, how did they know to do that in the first place?
“That’s still the $64,000 question,” Weaver said. “So both the CAPTCHA couldn’t leak in that configuration, and the IP the government visited wasn’t providing the CAPTCHA, but instead a PHPMyAdmin interface. Thus, the leaky CAPTCHA story is full of holes.”
My guess is that the NSA provided the FBI with this information. We know that the NSA provides surveillance data to the FBI and the DEA, under the condition that they lie about where it came from in court.
NSA whistleblower William Binney explained how it’s done:
…when you can’t use the data, you have to go out and do a parallel construction, [which] means you use what you would normally consider to be investigative techniques, [and] go find the data. You have a little hint, though. NSA is telling you where the data is…
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