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Two Prominent Dark Web Hubs Shut Down by Authorities

Joel Tope

Joel Tope

August 2, 2017

Alphabay and Hansa, two seedy dark web marketplaces, have been shut down by authorities thanks to international cooperation. Though the alleged founder was arrested in Thailand on 5 July, Alphabay wasn’t successfully shut down until 20 July. The two websites were breeding grounds for criminal activity, and provided a medium for criminals to share illegal documents, viruses, drugs, and even weapons.

Authorities were able to discern the name of the chief operator of Alphabay due to a security oversight, whereby the alleged founder used an email address constructed in part from his real name. The email address was listed as an administrative contact in password reset emails for the site’s users.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions comments,

“The dark net is not a place to hide. The Department will continue to find, arrest, prosecute, convict, and incarcerate criminals, drug traffickers and their enablers wherever they are.”

Europol and Dutch agencies cooperated to topple Hansa, which was believed to be the third largest black market on the dark web. The takedown produced some 10,000 physical building addresses of the site’s customers, some of whom were high profile figures and persons of interest.

The Dark Web and Hidden Services

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The average internet user doesn’t have an accurate understanding of the dark web. That lack of understanding is fueled by movies and TV shows that twist internet terminology to boost entertainment value. For instance, movies like The Matrix and shows like Mr. Robot have influenced the average user’s perception of what computer hackers are. Likewise, most people have a skewed understanding of what the dark web is.

There are several different ways to define which services comprise the dark web. Most often, people who use this term are referring to hidden services that are connected to the Tor anonymity network. Tor, which uses a network of relay servers and encrypted connections to obfuscate and mask the origin of data transmissions to protect anonymity, can also hide websites that aren’t indexed by Google. These sites are thus inaccessible to the average user.

Collectively, these hidden Tor services are what most people mean when they refer to the dark web. Alphabay and Hansa are two prime examples of dark web sites. They served as clandestine marketplaces and hotbeds of illegal activity. The founders of Alphabay and Hansa used Tor to disguise their activities and identities, but due to an oversight, the alleged founder of Alphabay was identified and arrested.

Alleged Alphabay Founder

Alphabay was allegedly founded by 26-year-old Alexandre Cazes, a Canadian citizen operating out of Thailand. Cazes was a multimillionaire with vacation properties scattered around the globe in locations such as Phuket, Cyprus, and Antigua. At the behest of US authorities, Thai police arrested Cazes on 5 July. They sent him to what is colloquially known as the Bangkok Hilton. Cazes died  shortly after imprisonment; it is believed that he commited suicide.

Thai officials reported that he was scheduled to meet with his attorney regarding drug trafficking charges. His website, Alphabay, was conservatively estimated to be worth at least six figures. Some believe it was worth at least seven figures. The website made it possible for people to anonymously conduct transactions by trading anonymous Bitcoins for illicit substances and contraband. The site shared many similarities with the formerly infamous dark web marketplace, The Silk Road.

The Use of Tor and Dark Web Caution

Despite the abuse of the Tor network by alleged criminals like Cazes, Tor remains a useful security tool. Using the Tor network will disguise the true origin of your data, making it virtually impossible to trace.

Having said which, I wouldn’t recommend using it to take a stroll through the dark web. Not only are some of the websites located on the dark web illegal, some of them are immoral. Simply visiting some of these sites could put you on the authorities’ radars. Additionally, I wouldn’t recommend using the Tor network by itself.

Instead, it’s best to use it in conjunction with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnel. Ideally, you want your data to be encrypted before it enters the Tor network, and not decrypted until after it has left a Tor exit-relay server. Even with encryption and anonymity technologies in place, it is still inadvisable to stray into the darker corners of the internet.

Websites like The Silk Road, Alphabay and Hansa (even though they’re now defunct) won’t be the last unsavory marketplaces to pop up on the dark web. I doubt most people have dark intentions – many are simply curious about the existence of hidden black markets. However, curiosity killed the cat. Nothing good can come of visiting these websites.

Authorities may not be able to track your IP address, due to IP address masking and obfuscation features offered by VPN tunnels and the Tor network, but there are countless other ways to track computers or tell if you’ve visited a site. Web browsers cache inordinate amounts of data, and cookies can be betray your activities faster than Benedict Arnold.

If authorities got their hands on your data or computer, you could be in some hot water if it’s discovered you visited these types of digital black markets. Even worse, what if you had purchased something – no matter how small – from one of these sites? With the takedown of Alphabay, all of the users’ addresses ended up in the hands of Europol. Would you wish your address to end up in the hands of international law enforcement agencies?

Final Thoughts

Two of the largest dark web black markets, Alphabay and Hansa, have been successfully taken down by international law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, more will likely crop up in their absence to fill the void. The dark web is an intriguing and enticing place, shrouded in mystery – even for law abiding citizens.

Network technologies like VPNs and Tor remain the best ways to stay safe, secure, private, and anonymous online, but they shouldn’t be abused in order to break the law or visit illicit black market sites on the dark web. Be cautious before perusing the dark web out of idle curiosity, or you could suffer life-altering consequences.

Title image credit: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock.com

Image credit: Dmitry Tishchenko/Shutterstock.com

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