Or that the most popular market, called Dream, had taken itself offline at the end of last month, perhaps sensing law enforcement closing in. Or that a multiagency US law enforcement task force devoted to stemming opioid sales on the dark web arrested more than 60 people in a major operation the month before.
On Wednesday, the FBI and Europol announced their latest win: The takedown of dark-web news and information site DeepDotWeb, which had quietly made millions of dollars from offering promotional links to black market sites in a kind of underground affiliate marketing scheme.
Taken together, those operations represent the most far-reaching collection of law enforcement actions against the dark web's economy in at least two years. But despite those wins, a years-long war of attrition seems to be exactly the pattern that the dark web's booms and busts now follow, argues Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Nicolas Christin, a longtime dark web researcher.
In an economy where the demand—drug-addicted users—remains constant or growing, that's only to be expected. But if I were a betting person I would put more money on it recovering than on it dramatically changing. The cycle Christin describes—law enforcement takedowns followed by a slow but robust recovery—has played out on the dark web again and again, repeating roughly every year or two. After the late takedown of the Silk Road, the first real dark-web drug market, more than a dozen replacements rose up to fill the demand for anonymous online narcotics sales.
A massive crackdown called Operation Onymous followed in late , seizing a broad swath of the dark web and arresting 17 people by exploiting a vulnerability in the anonymity software Tor , which serves as the dark web's fundamental cloaking tool. Yet by , another site, AlphaBay, rose up to become far bigger than the Silk Road had ever been. In a well-coordinated, two-pronged attack, the FBI took down Alphabay in July of that year while Dutch police hijacked the second-largest dark-web market, Hansa.
That maneuver drove Alphabay's refugees into a trap: The Dutch police had rewritten parts of Hansa's code to de-anonymize users, grab their passwords, and even install beacons on their computers. The double takedown, called Operation Bayonet, was intended not only to ensnare dark-web buyers and sellers but to scare them, too, as the Dutch police's National High Tech Crime Unit told WIRED at the time, creating a deterrent to keep users from migrating to the next dark-web drug bazaar.
But Christin counters that, by early this year, he had observed that Dream Market had roughly matched AlphaBay's previous size. He declined to share detailed numbers, which he says are part of a still-unpublished study. The last two months of arrests have at least sent the dark web into a temporary state of turmoil. In March, apparently enabled in part by information gathered in the Hansa sting, the US Department of Justice announced it had carried out what it calls Operation SaboTor.
They've been dedicated full-time to following the trail of dark-web suspects, from tracing their physical package deliveries to following the trail of payments on Bitcoin's blockchain. According to the indictment, from in and around October and continuing through the date of the indictment, Tal Prihar and his co-conspirator Michael Phan allegedly owned and operated DDW, hosted at www.
Prihar and Phan received kickback payments, representing commissions on the proceeds from each purchase of the illegal goods made by individuals referred to a Darknet marketplace from the DDW site. Further, the indictment alleges that users who visited DDW were able to click on the hyperlinks to navigate directly to the Darknet marketplaces. Through the use of the referral links, DDW received kickbacks from Darknet marketplaces every time a purchaser used DDW to buy illegal narcotics or other illegal goods on the marketplace.
When AlphaBay was seized by law enforcement in , it was one of the largest Darknet markets that offered illegal drugs, fraudulent identification materials, counterfeit goods, hacking tools, malware, firearms, and toxic chemicals. Approximately Over the course of the conspiracy, the defendants referred hundreds of thousands of users to Darknet marketplaces. Through the use of the referral links, the defendants received kickbacks worth millions of dollars, generated from the illicit sales conducted on Darknet marketplace accounts created through the site.
The defendants grew and promoted the DDW site, which functioned to drive further traffic to the DDW referral links, generating additional income for the defendants. Prihar functioned as the administrator of DDW. He registered the domain, made infrastructure payments and maintained control over site content.
Phan and Prihar communicated on a daily basis to facilitate their criminal enterprise. From in or before November until the date of this indictment, the defendants controlled a bitcoin wallet that they used to receive the kickback payments for purchases completed on the various Darknet marketplaces. Throughout the course of the conspiracy, DDW operated accounts on Darknet markets and communicated with the operators of various Darknet markets regarding kickback payments. In seeking to conceal their illicit activities and protect their criminal enterprise and the illegal proceeds it generated, the defendants set up numerous shell companies around the world.
The defendants used these companies to move their ill-gotten gains and conduct other activity related to DDW. These companies included WwwCom Ltd. Biztech, and Tal Advanced Tech. An indictment contains only allegations. A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Government initiative announced in January , aimed at targeting drug trafficking, especially fentanyl and other opioids, on the Darknet. The J-CODE team brings together agents, analysts, and professional staff with expertise in drugs, gangs, health care fraud, and more. Assistant U. Attorney Jessica Lieber Smolar of the U.
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