On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice publicly announced its role in the takedown of AlphaBay, one of the largest secret marketplaces on the darknet.
The site — which was primarily used for illegal drug trafficking — went offline two weeks ago, causing a widespread panic among the darknet community, and the revelation that its absence was part of a coordinated sting by the Justice Department has only further exacerbated the worries of its many users.
AlphaBay was one of many sites on the dark web, which — in the words of Attorney General Jeff Sessions — is “a collection of hidden websites that you can only access if you mask your identity and your location. And it’s called dark not just because these sites are intentionally hidden. It’s also dark because of what’s sold on many of them: illegal weapons, stolen identities, child pornography and large amounts of deadly drugs.”
The very idea of the darknet first rose to prominence in the mainstream media following the public takedown of the Silk Road — the original dark-web-powered marketplace — by the FBI in 2013, but the influence of the notorious site is dwarfed in comparison to AlphaBay, which is over ten times larger.
More than 40,000 illegal vendors frequented AlphaBay, where their products were available for purchase by any of the site’s 200,000-plus members. Illegal drug trafficking comprised the vast majority of the sales, with the Justice Department reporting that, at the time of the site’s takedown, there were over 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals posted.
In a statement announcing the takedown, Sessions said that “this is likely one of the most important criminal case of the year,” and warned of an upcoming departmentwide focus on illegal online activity.
“Make no mistake,” Sessions began, “the forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity by ‘going dark.’ This case, pursued by dedicated agents and prosecutors, says you are not safe.”
Although the majority of Sessions’s statement on the subject focused on the horrors of the opioid epidemic — which was only worsened by the quick access to drugs granted to users by AlphaBay — statements such as these suggest that the Justice Department has finally begun to take the influence that darknet activity can have on the nation as a whole seriously. It’s not some contained pod of digital crime that merely involves criminals and drug users, but rather a booming underground economy that has wide-reaching (and usually horrific) effects.
Toward the end of his press conference, Sessions told criminals, “You cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network. And we will prosecute you.”
And while this sort of harsh tone is ultimately a good thing, the language used here also reflects a shocking amount of naïvety regarding the very nature of the beast itself. We will never be able to “dismantle the dark web.” It’s not possible. It’s akin to trying to chop of the head of a Hydra: You get rid of one and five more will pop up and take its place.
In the wake of Silk Road’s closure, traffickers and authorities alike thought that this was it — that there was no way that the market could come back with such strength ever again. And yet, they could not have been more wrong. The oh-so-infamous bust merely resulted in a brief lull in the digital drug trade until the hoards of other (equally dark) sites rose up from the depths to take its place.
However, it’s also worth pointing out that while, on the one hand, this whole venture of chopping off dark-web Hydra heads only for them to sprout back seems pretty depressing, on the other hand, the heads are always getting chopped off. Authorities like the FBI, the Justice Department, and Europol have gotten surprisingly good at identifying these sorts of networks when they reach a certain size and shutting them down.
And although this is often due to leaders of these sites being shockingly terrible when it comes to opsec — the creator of AlphaBay was reportedly found because he had posted his incredibly Hotmail-esque email address, Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com, on the network during his early days on the site — it’s still somewhat reassuring that the cycle of events seems to be so fixed.
This is why — despite all the fanfare and panic regarding the closure of AlphaBay — there likely won’t be any real effect to the marketplaces of the dark web in the long run. Like those that came before it — and those that will likely come after it — it won’t be long until the hole left by AlphaBay is forgotten and the whole cycle begins again; the only question that remains is how authorities are going to handle whatever’s next.