Last month, the FBI took down the online drug marketplace known as Silk Road. However much like a hydra, a new online marketplace has reared its head called Evolution Marketplace, and it is enjoying explosive growth in its offer of drugs and other illegal items.
A statement from the Digital Citizens Alliance shows that though the FBI action in taking down websites did have the effect of slowing down the darknet, new sites have nonetheless emerged in the interim.
The latest Darknet site, Evolution significantly ups the stakes. Digital Citizens Alliance Research Director Dan Palumbo reports that they sell weapons, stolen credit cards, and other more nefarious items that were forbidden on both versions of Silk Road. The difference between Evolution and Silk Road was in what the latter was willing and not willing to do.
Silk Road drew the line at what they called “victimless crimes.” They never allowed child pornography, weapons or identity theft. Currently four of the top five darknet marketplaces sell weapons, while three of them sell stolen financial data. They also sell illegal drugs. As reported on the Digital Citizen Alliance, Evolution has close to 15,000 drug listings. The company has a dominant 45% market share of drug listings and a 52% market share in the darknet marketplace. This phenomenon points to a darknet that is growing ever darker, presenting even greater challenges to law enforcement authorities who take down one site only to see it replaced with yet another even bigger darker site.
Also read: Goodbye Silk Road 2.0, Welcome Silk Road 3.0
Typically, most Darknet sites can be accessed via the Tor Network Hidden Services, or Tor as it is more commonly known. Tor is a system of relays and nodes which bounces its users from relays around the world making them nearly impossible to trace. Tor has legitimate uses; however it is also a tool of choice for those who may wish to browse the internet anonymously and pertinent to this article, illegitimately.
Tor software is open source and can be downloaded free of charge. Tor is supported by a volunteer network of computers that make it possible for the software to work. It is estimated that there are about 4,000 volunteers working to maintain the Tor network.
Darknet marketplaces use a combination of these aspects of Tor as well as encryption software to maintain their users anonymity. They are then also able to hide the sites’ location, which shields them from the reach of law enforcement.
Tor is used for legitimate reasons as well. Quoting Tor’s Kelley Misata, the report mentioned above explained that Tor is used for a wide range of legitimate purposes including protecting domestic violence victims, journalists and even law enforcement officers themselves. It is useful for everyone and something that anyone who would like to protect information can employ.
The Darknet loves Bitcoin. Silk Road adopted Bitcoin very early on in its history. Since Bitcoin is peer-to-peer and is neither tied to any fiat currency nor backed by any bank, it becomes the perfect cover for users wishing to disguise their real identity. On the Open Net, payment processors like Visa and PayPal can also cancel an account for rogue sites, something that Bitcoin wallet owners do not have to worry about.
Still Bitcoin is not completely anonymous. Every confirmed transaction is included in the Bitcoin blockchain. The blockchain specifies which wallets are sending and receiving money. Therefore, if law enforcement gets to know the identity of a wallet receiving or making payment for illegal goods and services, they can track that individual down once he converts his coins into fiat money.
Images from FBI and Shutterstock.