ARTICLE | 18 Feb 2016 | Ms Amanda Roxburgh

A short history of darknet markets and the impact of disruptions along the way

Analysis of darknet marketplaces in the context of law enforcement and other disruptions

The intersection of drugs and the internet is not a new thing. People have been sharing their thoughts about drugs – the fun aspects, adverse effects, harm reduction messages – for many years. The offering of substances for sale online is also not new.

There are many websites that list pharmaceutical drugs for sale without a prescription. What is more recent is the advent of secure and encrypted online (‘darknet’) marketplaces that are only accessible via anonymising software such as the Onion Router (TOR).

The Drugs and New Technologies project (under the auspices of the Drug Trends program) at the NDARC has been monitoring darknet markets since 2013, and has a long series of data on the size of these markets over time.  Data is collected weekly and figures represent snapshots of specific points in time.  We monitor larger markets (with 100 or more listings) that are in English language.

"Though not the first darknet market to operate, the Silk Road was by far the most talked-about, popular market after its inception in early 2011. The Silk Road dominated the darknet until October 2013, when it was seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)."

In its wake, many more darknet marketplaces emerged (including the Silk Road 2.0), with some (e.g. Evolution and Agora) surpassing the size of the original Silk Road. In addition, from early 2014, retailers began to increasingly operate across more than one marketplace, with 10% doing so by July 2014. In November 2014, an international law enforcement operation (dubbed ‘Operation Onymous’) seized the Silk Road 2.0 along with other darknet markets and the servers on which they operated. Since this time there have been many more market disruptions that have had an impact on these markets. Evolution and Agora were the two biggest markets (in terms of numbers of retailers – approximately 1,000 retailers on each) at the time Operation Onymous occurred.  The number of retailers on Agora dropped at this point and Evolution continued to grow to almost 1500 retailers – surpassing numbers of retailers on any of the earlier darknet markets.  However, in March 2015, moderators from Evolution shut down the market suddenly, before disappearing with approximately $12million in customer bitcoins.

The six months following Evolution’s ‘exit scam’ saw a period of great instability on the remaining darknet markets, with ever increasing ‘down time’ during which markets were not accessible. Some of this was driven by moderators trying to improve security measures and some due to ‘denial of service’ attacks. These attacks were often designed to disrupt market operations to either extort money from moderators or entice customers to rival marketplaces. In August 2015, Agora suspended trading, asking all market participants to remove their bitcoin. They cited security concerns as the reason, and to date they have not returned to trading.

Since the disappearance of Evolution and Agora, several smaller markets have appeared, with some approaching  the size of Evolution or Agora at their peak, though no one market leader has emerged.

Darknet markets are dynamic and constantly changing within the context of many disruptions, both external (e.g. law enforcement and denial of service attacks) and internal (exit scams).  DNeT bulletins providing details on trends in darknet markets over time are available at the Drug Trends website, with the next bulletin due for publication at the end of March 2016.