Dream Market, Wall Street, AlphaBay; the list of recently dismantled darknet marketplaces goes on. But as history has shown, the darknet is a cat-and-mouse game. Silk Road, the largest marketplace of its time, was first launched in 2011 and survived for two years before an FBI-led shutdown—but its users quickly found a new home to set up shop.
This move from market to market continues despite unified law enforcement efforts since Operation Hyperion in 2016. What do these takedowns look like, and how are marketplace-targeted law enforcement efforts changing?
Law Enforcement Efforts Are Global
According to a news release issued by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the time, Operation Hyperion was the first step in developing a more unified global response to the darknet. The Operation aimed to crack down on illegal listings in darknet marketplaces, which include illegal substances, fraudulent documents, stolen personal and financial information, and illegal services (computer hacking, hitman, and money laundering, for example).
Operation Hyperion was followed by the shutdown of Alphabay, which contained 250,000 reported listings, mainly for illegal substances. In an effort to dismantle the marketplace Hansa, authorities are reported to have taken control of the market for an entire month in order to gauge and monitor site users.
In June 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the results of a year-long investigation into darknet marketplace activity:
- 35 darknet vendors arrests
- Seizure of $23.6 million of illegal marketplace goods, including: illicit substances, illegally purchased firearms and vehicles, drug-manufacturing equipment, and Bitcoin and Bitcoin-mining devices
Europol issued a release in March 2019 announcing another multi-nation police investigation resulting in 61 arrests and 50 dark web account shutdowns.
“The dark web is not as dark as you think,” said Catherine De Bolle, the agency’s Executive Director. “When you buy or sell illegal goods online, you are not hidden from law enforcement and you are putting yourself in danger.”
Marketplaces Flourish Despite Crackdowns
Despite these takedowns, marketplaces continue to grow and evolve. The biggest darknet marketplace of its time, Silk Road, contained just 14,000 listings, compared to the hundreds of thousands of listings on more recently dismantled sites like AlphaBay. It’s likely that new darknet marketplaces will continue to pop up in spite of unified efforts to shut old ones down.
Law enforcement investigations are also lengthy and expensive. The longer it takes to shutdown a marketplace, the more time cybercriminals have to circumvent law enforcement and create new sites. The darknet is easy to access, but is unindexed and extremely difficult and time-consuming to find relevant information by manually surfing through it.
Technology Is Crucial For Threat Mitigation
One way to get ahead is to speed up the process of collecting intel relevant to investigations. Darknet discovery tools are playing a larger role in cybersecurity and investigations into illegal darknet activity. Finding this information manually is no longer enough to keep up with the darknet’s evolution.
Technologies such as Beacon give law enforcement quick access to critical intelligence on the dark web from the safety of their usual surface web browser. The tool allows users to search darknet marketplaces and forums by category and keyword, and apply further filters to narrow down results. This saves law enforcement much needed time and resources while conducting successful darknet investigations.
Regardless of how many operations are deployed, sites are dismantled, or arrests are made, the darknet will continue to flourish and evolve—the question is, how can law enforcement more effectively lead investigations and mitigate cybercrime? Dark web discovery tools play a huge role in the future of law enforcement’s ability to locate relevant threat intelligence quickly.
Karl Swannie is the CEO of Echosec Systems Ltd., creators of an online data aggregation platform of the same name, and Beacon, an OSINT tool that delivers structured dark web data.