Two huge illicit markets operating on the Dark Web, AlphaBay and Hansa, were shut down today after being infiltrated by the government for the past several weeks. The sites had claimed up to 200,000 users, 40,000 vendors and 350,000 listings for illegal drugs, stolen credit card information, hacked computer code, counterfeit goods and other illegal items. A Canadian citizen based in Thailand was arrested last month in connection with AlphaBay.
The Dark Web consists of websites accessible only though the Tor network, an easy-to-use, technically sophisticated way to communicate anonymously over the internet. The technology, much to the dismay of governments around the world, has become popular with political dissidents as well as criminals hiding their activities from law enforcement. The Dark Web is home to numerous high-traffic online marketplaces with few limits on what can be bought or sold. These businesses conduct transactions in BitCoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies.
According to the Department of Justice press releasee, AlphaBay users bought and sold “deadly illegal drugs, stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and toxic chemicals throughout the world.”
In addition to the seizure of AlphaBay, which according to the DOJ has been under government control since July 4, 2017, Dutch National Police announced that they had control of a second dark net market place, Hansa, since June 20, 2017. The Dutch National Police posted a notice on Hansa which included a picture of sinking pirate ship and read: “The Dutch National Police have located Hansa Market and taken over control of this marketplace since June 20, 2017. We have modified the source code, which allowed us to capture passwords, PGP-encrypted order information, IP-addresses, Bitcoins, and other relevant information that may help law enforcement agencies worldwide to identify users of this marketplace.” Then, in a playful irony, the notice directs the reader to visit a second dark web address to learn more about the operation.
It is unclear whether the source code of AlphaBay was similarly changed by U.S. authorities to capture user information. In any event, Dutch law enforcement may share whatever identifying information they have collected about American users of the site with law enforcement agencies in the US. Depending on the methods used by the Dutch authorities to locate users of the site, any prosecution brought in U.S. courts will likely face challenges similar to those posed by the federal government’s prosecution of users of the dark web site PlayPen, which allowed users to share child pornography. Several of the government’s cases against PlayPen users have since been dismissed for a variety of reasons, including bad faith on the part of government agents who devised the investigation. Although the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have recently been amended to vastly expand the government’s power to de-anonymize dark web users, many Fourth Amendment challenges still exist for users tracked down by means of government hacking. If you are caught up in a Dark Web investigation, involving child pornography, drugs, or other alleged illegal activity, contact our office for a review of your case.