At least four men have been arrested after allegedly helping to run and operate the illegal online marketplace Silk Road.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said in a statement that four U.K.-based men on on drugs offences are currently being investigated by the agency.
The suspects -- one in his early 50s from Devon and the others in their early 20s hailing from Manchester -- were held by NCA officials after the FBI arrested the alleged creator of Silk Road.
Silk Road was closed down by U.S. federal agents, and the alleged creator, Ross William Ulbricht -- otherwise known as "Dread Pirate Roberts" -- was arrested in San Francisco earlier this month.
The agency warned that other U.K. suspects are due for arrest in the coming weeks. Media reports suggest that U.S. authorities have charged two people in Bellevue, Washington -- a top Silk Road seller and his alleged accomplice -- and two men in Sweden have been arrested on suspicion of distributing cannabis.
The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) says that by using the Tor network and bitcoin, buyers and sellers attempted to disguise themselves while buying and selling illegal goods, including drugs and hacking tools. Prosecutors claim that Ulbricht "deliberately set out to establish an online criminal marketplace outside the reach of law enforcement and government regulation."
The 29-year-old's network uses a Tor computer network to camouflage digital footprints, and a bitcoin "tumblr" was used to disguise user transactions.
While many used the marketplace in an attempt to remain anonymous, NCA Director General Keith Bristow says that "users who think they can hide their identity on the internet to carry out their criminality should think again." The director said it is "impossible" for criminals to completely hide their digital footprint -- no matter how tech-savvy they are -- and once mistakes are made, law enforcement jumps in. Bristow commented:
"These arrests send a clear message to criminals; the hidden internet isn't hidden and your anonymous activity isn't anonymous. We know where you are, what you are doing and we will catch you. These latest arrests are just the start; there are many more to come."
Head of the NCA's National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) Andy Archibald said:
"This is only the start of a wider campaign for the NCA to tackle the 'dark' or 'deep' web and the criminals exploiting it. These criminal areas of the internet aren't just selling drugs; it's where fraud takes place, where the trafficking of people and goods is discussed, where child abuse images are exchanged and firearms are traded.
Stopping this element of serious and organised crime will go a long way to protecting the public."
As part of the closure of the Silk Road operation, millions of pounds worth of the virtual currency bitcoin were also seized. A number of Silk Road users maintain that the marketplace was used to trade for a number of legal goods -- and therefore want their currency back. However, prosecutors say that Silk Road is a den for thousands of drug dealers to distribute their wares to hundreds of thousands of users.