AlphaBay is taking over the dark web again

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For many years it’s dark Online marketplaces and the law enforcement agencies that fight them are stuck in a cycle of raids, flushes, repeats: for every online black market destroyed, another always comes to take its place. But rarely has the dominant market of the dark web been smashed by a massive law enforcement operation, only to rise from the ashes half a century later and reclaim the top spot, a feat that AlphaBay, the former and future king of the internet, can perform very soon. smuggled cryptoeconomics.

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In July 2017, a global law enforcement action known as Operation Bayonet destroyed AlphaBay’s vast drug and cybercrime market by taking over the site’s central server in Lithuania and arresting its creator Alexander Kazes outside his home in Bangkok. However, last August, AlphaBay’s second administrator and security specialist, commonly known as DeSnake, unexpectedly reappeared, announcing the rebirth of AlphaBay in a new and improved form. Now, 10 months later, thanks in part to the turmoil and mysterious disappearances of rival dark web markets, DeSnake’s AlphaBay reincarnation is now on its way to its former heights at the top of the digital underworld. In some ways, it looks like he’s already reclaimed that spot.

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“Yes, AlphaBay is the #1 darknet marketplace right now,” DeSnake says, writing to WIRED in a text conversation last week. “I already told you that we are going to be No. 1 before,” he added, referring to our interview with the new administrator of AlphaBay during its relaunch last summer. “Like I told you, I do what I say.”

DeSnake’s boast is at least partially true: As of last week, AlphaBay had more than 30,000 unique listings of products – mostly drugs, from ecstasy to opioids and methamphetamines – but also thousands of listings of malware and stolen data, such as license plates. social security and credit cards. Details. This is up from a mere 500 listings last September. Another old market called ASAP displays over 50,000 ads. But ASAP has been known to allow vendors to post duplicate listings, and according to security firm Flashpoint, which closely monitors competing markets, AlphaBay had more than 1,300 active vendors in about the first six months of this year, compared to about 1,000 for ASAP. AlphaBay’s listings are also growing significantly faster, according to Flashpoint data.

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Meanwhile, other marketplaces advertised on darknet forums, such as Archetyp and Incognito, have only a few thousand or just a few hundred listings. All of which suggests that AlphaBay may already be the most popular marketplace for dark web sellers to list their items for sale.

AlphaBay’s tens of thousands of product listings are still a tiny fraction of the more than 350,000 it offered before closing in 2017, when it was the largest darknet marketplace it has ever seen. According to the FBI, it was 10 times the size of the legendary Silk Road drug market. DeSnake admits the new AlphaBay’s revenue is nowhere near its 2017 peak, when analytics firm Chainalysis estimates AlphaBay is making up to $2 million a day from sales. (DeSnake declined to release current sales numbers, but said they are “big numbers.”)

In addition, unlike most competitors, the new version of AlphaBay only allows users to buy and sell the privacy-focused cryptocurrency Monero, and not bitcoin, transactions with which can often be tracked through blockchain surveillance. This makes it difficult to measure the site’s sales and could mean it has fewer sales per listing as many users prefer to trade bitcoin.

But even with this difference and other unknowns in the parallel analysis of darknet markets, AlphaBay appears to be the leading market or will soon be, says Ian Gray, a darknet analyst at security firm Flashpoint. “There are rumors on the wall that AlphaBay is likely to regain its place as the most popular marketplace,” Gray says, “and it already seems to be the largest in terms of vendor volume.”

AlphaBay’s rapid growth — or resurgence — has been fueled in part by what Gray calls the “Great Cyber ​​Retirement”: in the past 18 months, at least 10 darknet markets have gone offline for various reasons. Some of them were detained by law enforcement agencies, such as the Dark Market. the target of the destruction operation led by Europol at the beginning of last year; or Hydra, the huge Russian-speaking market for drugs and money laundering, servers were seized during a law enforcement raid in April. Others such as Dark0de and World Market are believed to have engaged in “exit scams” by suddenly disappearing along with their users’ money. Still others, such as Cannazon and the White House Market, have arranged more thoughtful and organized exits, giving users time to withdraw any funds held on the sites.

Darknet market product data shows how the new AlphaBay market survived a massive exodus of competitors. (Data does not include ASAP data for the last two days of the analyzed time period.)

Flash point

Until the end of May, a site called Versus remained the last leading market. But then, just two weeks ago, DeSnake published evidence in a post on the Dread darknet marketplace forum that pointed to a security vulnerability in Versus, provided to him by what DeSnake claimed was a user named “threesixty” that exposed Versus’ IP address. , potentially making its users vulnerable to hackers or law enforcement. “Me and threesixty have the best of intentions,” DeSnake wrote in his post. “We look forward to a fruitful conversation about safety in the trading floors.”

In response, Versus immediately announced their retirement. “We will say that there was a clear agenda behind the way this was originally handled,” wrote the site administrator known as William Gibson, “but we leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

Meanwhile, DeSnake has claimed on both Dread and WIRED that he has no personal or professional connection to threesixty, the hacker whose discovery of the vulnerability wiped out AlphaBay’s biggest remaining competitor. “We handled this in the best possible way because of the severity of the problem,” says DeSnake.

According to Flashpoint’s Ian Gray, in addition to the circumstances surrounding Versus’ departure, the recent decline in dark web markets may be due to the generally hostile environment they always face. Markets are often bombarded with distributed denial-of-service attacks launched by competitors using waves of unwanted traffic to knock them out and dealing with constant disputes between buyers and sellers. Market administrators also feel a constant threat from law enforcement looming in the background. All of this encourages any darknet administrator who has reached a certain level of success to take the money and run approach and has allowed DeSnake, who appears to be more ambitious and pushy in his goals, to lift AlphaBay back to the top. “With all these other shutdowns, you have so few players in space,” Gray says. “There’s really only one that’s done reasonably well, and that’s AlphaBay.”

When AlphaBay first resurfaced, Gray and other darknet analysts and users expressed suspicion that DeSnake might be compromised by law enforcement. Although he seemed to prove his identity as AlphaBay’s former right-hand man by signing messages with the same PGP cryptographic key he had used in the past, many darknet dwellers feared that he might be controlled by the police agency as part of an undercover operation, as when the Dutch police secretly took over Hansa’s dark web drug market in 2017..

However, after nearly a year on the network, DeSnake says he feels “justified” given that very few undercover operations have lasted this long. “For most vendors and customers, that’s a no-brainer,” says DeSnake.

If DeSnake has proven he is the rightful heir to AlphaBay — and isn’t running the exit scam himself — he still faces the risk of arrest by law enforcement, which only grows as the resurgent market comes into focus. “It’s Russian roulette driving the darknet market, especially with all the information we got from the Alphabay liquidation,” says Grant Rabenn, a former federal prosecutor who led the investigation that led to the arrest of AlphaBay in 2017 and the arrest of its original administrator Alexander . Cases, who was later found dead in a Thai prison on charges of suicide. (DeSnake claimed, without evidence, that Cases had been murdered.)

Rabenn hints that the 2017 case also resulted in U.S. law enforcement gaining “a fair amount of information” about AlphaBay employees. As the darknet market grows, this previous investigation could provide clues to DeSnake’s identity as federal agencies refocus their attention on AlphaBay and his new boss. “It definitely makes you a target on the back, not only because of historical behavior and connections, but also because you are in charge,” Rabenn says. “Everyone will look for him.”

However, DeSnake told WIRED that he has developed several forms of protection that give him confidence that he will continue to be one step ahead of the feds. Perhaps most importantly, he claims to live in a former Soviet country that does not have an extradition treaty with the US. His choice for AlphaBay to use only Monero and not Bitcoin could make it much more difficult to analyze the blockchain that contributed to the original site’s shutdown. And he claims to have created sophisticated technical safeguards that include redundant infrastructure in several countries, as well as a system called AlphaGuard, designed to automatically restart the site on new servers in the event of a failure. “We’ll be back at work in a few days and we won’t lose a dime,” DeSnake says.

Eventually, DeSnake announced that he hopes to develop a “decentralized marketplace network” that hosts darknet marketplaces on hundreds or thousands of servers—a kind of uncensored, uncensored Bittorrent for Napster’s existing marketplaces. He claims that a test version of this decentralization scheme is planned for the end of this year, and AlphaBay will switch to it sometime in 2023. want to launch a beta version of a decentralized project,” says DeSnake. “Then fully migrate step by step to allow AlphaBay to exist for many years to come and start [darknet market] stage into a new golden era, just like we did before.”

It’s far from clear whether this plan – or DeSnake’s self-proclaimed invulnerability – is a reality or a mirage. But he appears to have fulfilled — or will soon fulfill — his first promise: to reclaim the crown of the dark web. And perhaps another period of AlphaBay’s reign is just beginning.

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