The DarkNet Hydra
The past few months have thrust DarkNet Markets into the mainstream media. The seizure of the largest market, AlphaBay, created a frenzy amongst those who use the site and the average curious citizen wondering how one can buy drugs online. A week later another DarkNet market site, Hansa, was found to have been compromised by Dutch authorities a month prior and was finally shut down after collecting information from the sellers and buyers that fled AlphaBay. Some news analysts predicted the end of DarkNet markets. However, history has proven otherwise.
The Silk Road was the original DarkNet Market. Resembling Ebay or Amazon for drugs and other illicit goods, the site operated for two years before being shut down by law enforcement. In the aftermath of the site, the Silk Road 2 and 3 amongst other illicit sites sprung up. After shutting down some of these other sites, many more sites appeared on the Dark Web. The Silk Road marketplace proved to others that these sites are a lucrative
business. At its apex, AlphaBay was processing over $600k in transactions a day. The creator of AlphaBay, Alexandre Cazes, lived the lifestyle of a millionaire with numerous cars and residences.
The risk vs. reward these market places live under allows these markets to grow. The only risk many see is the sloppy anonymizing done by Ross Ulbricht (Silk Road) and Alexandre Cazes (Alpha Bay). These individuals are now known famously for using their personal identifying email addresses in the early phases of their sites. Despite Alphabay’s and Hansa’s closure, sellers and buyers have migrated to other sites such as Wall St. or Valhalla. Some sites are even offering lower fees to sellers from AlphaBay. While the take downs have created some fear in buyers and sellers migrating to new sites, the DarkNet Markets are not going away. They are slowly evolving into a more complex problem for law enforcement.
When Hercules fought the Hydra in Greek Mythology, cutting off one head led to multiple others springing up in its place. Global law enforcement is discovering that as each market
closes, many more are created. Fortunately, many of these buyers ans sellers are using the same credentials on these new sites, making enforcement very easy.
The real danger comes from many users moving to a peer to peer basis (P2P) transactions. Many criminals have utilized P2P transactions for some time, but the convenience of sites like AlphBay made the arduous P2P process unpopular.
One form of P2P transactions often overlooked is illicit drugs available for sale on many popular social media sites and apps used today. A quick search on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sites will reveal multiple profiles offering various types of drugs for sale. These can be purchased with a direct message through a third party app and bitcoin sent to the individual. How does law enforcement battle these profiles? Facebook or SnapChat won’t be seized for a small number of users with these profiles. While there is a slight security issue to sellers using these sites, many are typically not caught unless they make the same mistakes as Ulbricht or Cazes.
Just as Hercules figured out how to slay the Hydra, an improved strategy for shutting down these markets for good is needed. While recent operations may push some out of the market, many have migrated to new markets. The concern is defeating DarkMarkets before technology allows them to become completely decentralized. As Open Bazaar recently implemented Tor connections into the software, that concern may be closer than many expect.