Report

Feds Shut Down World’s Largest Online Drug Marketplace

Billed as a landmark operation, U.S. law enforcement strikes at dark web drug dealers.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 20:  (L-R) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe other law enforcement officials hold a news conference to announce an 'international cybercrime enforcement action' at the Department of Justice July 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump said Wednesday in an interview with the New York Times that he never would have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. "Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Trump said.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 20: (L-R) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe other law enforcement officials hold a news conference to announce an 'international cybercrime enforcement action' at the Department of Justice July 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump said Wednesday in an interview with the New York Times that he never would have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. "Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Trump said. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

American and European law enforcement officials said Thursday they have shuttered two leading online drug marketplaces, seizing computer infrastructure and arresting a slew of individuals operating the illicit network.

The take down of AlphaBay and Hamsa represents the most serious strike at so-called dark web markets since the shutdown of Silk Road, the pioneering illegal online market busted by American authorities in 2013. With the help of tools such as Tor, dark web markets allow customers to anonymously purchase drugs and other illicit goods and services using cryptocurrencies, which can be used to bypass traditional banking systems.

AlphaBay had grown to become a the world’s largest online drug market, and according to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, was at the time of its shuttering 10 times the size of Silk Road. European law enforcement authorities say AlphaBay had more than 200,000 users, 40,000 vendors, with listings for more than 250,000 listings for drugs and other illicit substances. The site also included more than 100,000 offers for fake IDs, hacking tools, and weapons.

According to Europol, the site has processed more than $1 billion in transactions since its creation in 2014.

But the operation, carried out in cooperation between American and European law enforcement agencies, is unlikely to kill off the online drug market. In recent years, as police have shuttered one market, another has popped up to take its place.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, the FBI’s McCabe acknowledged that problem. “That is the nature of criminal work. It never goes away.”

In taking down AlphaBay, federal authorities sought to leverage that dynamic to increase the impact of their operation taking down Hamsa, the world’s third-largest dark web market.

AlphaBay first went dark on July 5, when law enforcement officials seized the site’s computer infrastructure and arrested its 25-year-old founder, Alexandre Cazes, in Thailand. With the site shut down, its users flocked to other sites, including Hamsa.

According to Europol, Dutch police took control of Hamsa about a month ago, and when AlphaBay closed its doors, police observed an eightfold increase in users. This allowed Dutch police to gain access to “valuable information on high value targets and delivery addresses for a large number of orders,” Europol said in a press release.

“”We took covert control of the Hansa Market a month ago and shut down AlphaBay during the same period. What this meant was that we could disrupt and then sweep up all those new users.” Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, said in Washington on Thursday.

On July 12, Cazes, a Canadian citizen, killed himself while in Thai custody.

In a press conference at the Justice Department’s Washington headquarters, Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the strike against AlphaBay, the largest dark web drug market currently in operation, as a major success in the Trump administration’s effort to curb the explosive use of opioid drugs in the United States. Sites such as AlphaBay, Sessions said, are “pouring fuel on the fire of the national drug epidemic.”

“Some of the most prolific drug suppliers use what’s called the dark web,” Sessions said. “You cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network.  And we will prosecute you.”

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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