“WHEN ALPHABAY, THE world’s largest dark web bazaar, went offline two weeks ago, it threw the darknet into chaos as its buyers and sellers scrambled to find new venues. What those dark web users didn’t—and couldn’t—know: That chaos was planned. Dutch authorities had already seized Hansa, another another major dark web market, the previous month.
For weeks, they operated it as usual, quietly logging the user names, passwords, and activities of its visitors–including a massive influx of Alphabay refugees.
On Thursday, Europol and the US Department of Justice jointly announced the fruits of the largest-ever sting operation against the dark web’s black markets, including the seizure of AlphaBay, a market Europol estimates generated more than a billion dollars in sales of drugs, stolen data, and other illegal goods over its three years online. While Alpabay’s closure had previously been reported as an FBI operation, the agency has now confirmed that takedown, while Europol also revealed details of its tightly coordinated Hansa takeover.
With Hansa also shuttered as of Thursday, the dark web looks substantially diminished from just a few short weeks ago—and its denizens shaken by law enforcement’s deep intrusion into their underground economy.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal cases of the year,” attorney general Jeff Sessions said in a press conference Thursday morning. “Make no mistake, the forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity by ‘going dark.’ This case, pursued by dedicated agents and prosecutors, says you are not safe. You cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network. And we will prosecute you.”
So far, neither Europol nor the Department of Justice has named any of the administrators, sellers, or customers from either Hansa or AlphaBay that they plan to indict. The FBI and DEA had sought the extradition from Thailand of one AlphaBay administrator, Canadian Alexandre Cazes after identifying him in an operation they called Bayonet. But Cazes was found hanged in a Bangkok jail cell last week in an apparent suicide.
Still, expect plenty of prosecutions to emerge from the double-takedown of Hansa and AlphaBay, given the amount of information Dutch police could have swept up in the period after Alphabay’s closure.
“They flocked to Hansa in their droves,” said Interpol director Rob Wainwright. “We recorded an eight-times increase in the number of new users on Hansa immediately following the takedown of Alphabay.” The influx was so large, in fact, that Hansa put up a notice just last week that it was no longer accepting new registrations, a mysterious development given that Dutch police controlled it at the time.
That surveillance means that law enforcement likely now has identifying details on an untold number of dark web sellers—and particularly buyers. Europol claims that it gathered 10,000 postal addresses of Hansa customers, and tens of thousands of their messages, from the operation, at least some of which were likely AlphaBay customers who had migrated to the site in recent weeks.
Though customers on dark web sites are advised to encrypt their addresses so that only the seller of the purchased contraband can read it, many don’t, creating a short trail of breadcrumbs to their homes for law enforcement when they seize the sites’ servers.”