Two of the largest marketplaces in the “dark web”, Alphabay and Hansa, have been shut down.
The shutdown was a joint effort by the US Department of Justice and Europol. The two marketplaces served hundreds of thousands of customers and sold illicit items like drugs and guns.
The dark web is unindexed web that is only accessible by means of special software. This allows users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable. Many access the dark web through Tor, a free software that enables anonymous communication.
One of the biggest online black marketplaces used to be Silk Road. Launched in 2011, it became a popular platform for illegal drug trade. In October 2013, the FBI shut down Silk Road and arrested Ross William Ulbricht on charges of being its pseudonymous founder, "Dread Pirate Roberts.” He has been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In 2017, the 33-year-old’s appeal was denied.
Europol has said that in AlphaBay, there were listings for 250,000 illegal drugs and toxic chemicals. From May 2015 to February 2017, $450m (£347m) was reportedly spent in the marketplace. Drugs included heroin and fentanyl.
Europol's executive director Rob Wainwright said, "The capability of drug traffickers and other serious criminals around the world has taken a serious hit today.”
Due to the crackdown, hundreds of investigations are expected to be opened in Europe alone.
The operation had been primarily led by the US but agencies of various countries also cooperated. This includes international law enforcement agencies from Thailand, Netherlands, Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. Europol was a key partner.
Apart from drugs, investigators also found listings for fraudulent identification documents, hacking tools and firearms. Both marketplaces were accessible through Tor browser.
Alexandre Cazes, a 26-year-old Canadian was arrested in Bangkok in July 2017 on suspicion of being an operator for AlphaBay. While awaiting his extradition to the US, he was found hanging in his prison cell in Bangkok on July 12.
Our assessment is that the crackdown on AlphaBay and Hansa is a clear signaling to operators within the dark web. When Silk Road was initially shut down, another version of it appeared in the dark web almost immediately before it too was shut. Law enforcement agencies should be equipped to shut down any copy-cat marketplaces that spring in the wake of the recent incidents.