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How a global sting took down two major dark web markets

July 23, 2017 at 4:04 PM EDT
The U.S. Justice Department, in partnership with European investigators, has shut down two of the dark web’s largest websites. The black market sites were allegedly purveyors of illegal drugs, guns and hacking tools, according to federal charges announced on Thursday. WIRED magazine reporter Andy Greenberg joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the case.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  The U.S. Justice Department, in partnership with European investigators, has shut down two of the world’s largest Websites on what is known as the Dark Web.  The black market sites were allegedly purveyors of illegal drugs, guns, and hacking tools, according to federal charges announced on Thursday.

“Wired” magazine reporter Andy Greenberg is covering the case and joins me now to discuss it.

So, first of all, how significant were these busts?

ANDY GREENBERG, REPORTER, WIRED MAGAZINE:  Well, this is definitely one of the largest blows, law enforcement blows to the Dark Web in a very long time.  Not only in temps of scale, because the biggest of these sites called AlphaBay, had ten times as many illegal product listings as the Silk Road, if you remember the Silk Road with the original sort of Dark Web markets.

But also, they took down another site, Hansa, which was the third largest Dark Web market.  And before they took it down, they controlled it for a full month, so they were able to observe a lot of what was happening in that underground market and probably identified thousands of its users who may now be arrested.

SREENIVASAN:  So, when one of these sites went down, did all of those users move to the other site?

GREENBERG:  Well, this was kind of the trap that the international forces — this is actually, you know, the FBI, the DEA, Europol and the Dutch police, all working together.  They took control of the third largest site, and then weeks later shut down the very largest site, and that sort of sent all of the largest site’s users, AlphaBay’s users, flocking to that other site, so they’re able to watch them register, able to watch them do some transactions, probably gain the identifying details of many more users that way.  That was certainly part of their intention and I think it also created a kind of psychological impact.  There is a fear in the Dark Net that the cops are everywhere.

SREENIVASAN:  So, are these users — I mean, they don’t use their real names, but if they’re buying and selling products, then those physical products have to go someplace in the real world, like a mailing address, right?  If you’re buying drugs, you physically have to get control of it.  Does that mean that now, the police or the different authorities say now I know I’ve got your address?

GREENBERG:  Well, in theory, when you buy drugs on the Dark Web, you encrypt your address and then you send that encrypted address to the seller of the drugs, so that only he or she can decrypt it and see your actual — where you live.  But lots of users are careless.  I would say the majority of users from what I’ve seen on the Dark Web forums don’t encrypt their addresses.

SREENIVASAN:  You know, this reminds, and you mentioned Silk Road.  When that went down, we thought that was going to have a big impact, but this is an economy that sort of moves on, right, two other, three other sites pop up.  So, what happens now?

GREENBERG:  Well, this is definitely not the first of these takedowns and none of them have taken a permanent bite out of the Dark Web.  You know, the Silk Road in 2013, the second Silk Road, the sort of sequel site was taken down in 2014.  Each time, the Dark Web bounces back in large part because people are addicted to drugs and the demand doesn’t go away.  If they can only or most easily obtain the drugs they want through the Dark Web instead of from the streets, then they are going to come back and they have every time.

SREENIVASAN:  So, does this mean that the authorities have a way to crack Tor which everyone thought was this totally encrypted safe way to communicate anonymously?

GREENBERG:  We don’t know how at least the third largest site in this takedown was cracked.  The first largest site, AlphaBay, the administrator of the site actually posted his e-mail address in the welcome message to the site it turns out in 2014.  That was the first clue that allowed authorities to start tracing him back to his home in Thailand, arrested him.  He actually committed suicide in a Thai jail.

So, in that case, it doesn’t seem that there was any kind of Tor break that was necessary.  But in another cases, it does seem that law enforcement has broken Tor.  Each time Tor usually figures out what went wrong, it patches that flaw so it becomes secured again.

SREENIVASAN:  All right.  Andy Greenberg of “Wired Magazine”, thanks so much.

GREENBERG:  Thank you.

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