"UPDATE (04/29/2013 0715) “We are being attacked once more. This time the forums are under attack as well. Access is intermittent, so hopefully some of you can read this.” " - Dread Pirate Roberts
This announcement from the founder of Silk Road, the world’s largest online drugs market, sent shockwaves through the 'dark web' and forums buzzed with anxiety. “I have $2800.00 in there right now,” said one user. A long thread discussed how to find and kill the attacker.
With $2 million of transactions per month, Silk Road is big business. It is the poster boy of the ‘dark web’, an encrypted network of illicit sites that run parallel to the regular internet, or ‘clearnet’. Silk Road offers a global marketplace of 7,000 drug listings much like eBay, connecting buyers and sellers of everything from experimental hallucinogens to ‘super skunk’ marijuana. Convenience, quality and security are at the click of a mouse.
But in recent months the attacks have intensified, with suspicion falling on law enforcement, hackers and new competitors that have profited from the site’s problems. The ‘Atlantis’ market undercuts Silk Road prices and makes offers to its star sellers. ‘Black Market Reloaded’ clears $400,000 a month with a different model – anything goes. Assault rifles, private bank details and contract killers are available for the right price ($10,000).
“We saw an opportunity with the recent Silk Road issues and decided to create a new marketplace,” Vladimir, Atlantis founder, told Metro in an interview via encrypted chat, in which he denied involvement in the attacks. “We aimed to utilize a modern user interface and to create a better user experience for both vendors and buyers.”
The demand exists to support the growing market. The Global Drug Survey 2013 found that 20% of users buy online, with the dark web making drugs more accessible than ever. “Users tend to be 20s-40s, professionals, relatively tech-savvy,” Eileen Ormsby, writer of the ‘All Things Vice’ blog, told Metro. “But they come from every demographic imaginable.”
User Glenn Watkins explained the advantage. “You connect with the best people with the best product, and the users make it a real community. In one forum they test every type of LSD to find the best. Once I wasn’t 100% satisfied with my purchase and the follow day I was sent double the quantity for free.”
Yet the honor system has not been foolproof. Silk Road’s biggest and most trusted heroin seller scammed over $250,000 last year, while virtual wallets have been stolen.
Most users worry little about police, benefitting from double encryption: the website is hosted on the untraceable Tor browser, and uses Bitcoins, an untraceable, virtual currency. Both the FBI and the UK Serious Organized Crime Agency have expressed fear the networks are beyond their reach.
The anonymity does not only serve criminals; activists in the Arab Spring revolutions used Tor to avoid detection from the regime, and it is a common tool for journalists to correspond with sources. “Tor has 500,000 daily users and we have no idea what they do,” Tor security developer Runa Sandvik said. “I can’t imagine law enforcement ever cracking it.”
Many of the dark web sites operate on ‘anarcho-libertarian’ principles in line with groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, rejecting the “tyranny of government”. So far the police have been outflanked, leaving users to fear only each other.