How a Huge Online Drug Crackdown Actually Helped Web Dealers

Dec 17, 2014 at 11:00 AM ET

Last month, law enforcement agencies from 16 countries, including the FBI, carried out the largest cyber drug bust in history. They shut down hundreds of black-market sites, arrested 17 people and seized more than a million bucks in cash, silver and gold.

The most prominent website they put out of business was Silk Road 2.0, a clone of the original Silk Road (which shut down in 2013). Silk Road 2.0 had thousands of listings and hundreds of vendors. “The criminals can run but they can’t hide,” the head of the European Cybercrime Centre said in a statement at the time.

But most of these criminals don’t appear to be doing any running at all. In fact, they never needed to. A recent report by Centient, a London-based cyber security firm that tracks the dark net, found that the shutdown may have actually increased the number of drugs being sold online. “Despite the success of the operation,” Centient explains, “the surviving marketplaces have grown and the overall market size is now bigger than before the law enforcement actions.”

Why? Well, first off, the authorities didn’t actually shut down the two biggest sites, Evolution and Agora. These sites are like Amazon for illegal goods—easy to navigate and simple to use with thousands of products listed for sale.

According to Centient, a week after the bust, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of products being sold on Evolution and a 27 percent increase on Agora. Apparently, sellers on sites that had been shut down were just moving over to Evolution and Agora, sort of like an eBay seller deciding to sell on Etsy instead.

“It appears that these takedowns have not really achieved anything long term; the majority of users have carried on business as usual,” Centient adds.

Even a quick scan of DarkNetMarkets, a popular subreddit where people post their favorite vendors and reviews of drugs they’ve bought, shows that the trade is alive and well. The subreddit has over 37,000 subscribers.

It’s fair to assume that the government also tried to shut down Evolution and Agora—but it’s not that easy. All the seized and non-seized sites are hosted on Tor, the so-called dark net, which makes them virtually anonymous. The authorities never reported how, exactly, they were able to find the servers for the sites they did shut down. That’s a question that’s very much open to speculation.

In its initial press release, Europol first said it took down about 410 hidden sites. However, security researcher Nik Cubrilovik found that the authorities really seized only about 276 sites. Of those sites, Cubrilovik found, a huge percentage were actually clone or scam sites.

In other words, the government was busy shutting down sites that were scammy, while leaving the legitimate drug sites to carry on with their business.

It’s not hard to see the irony here. By shutting down the scam and clone sites—and leaving the two biggest major sites running—the government may have inadvertently made buying drugs online smoother.

“The Dark Net Markets Community thanks Europol, Eurojus and the FBI for removing all these scam sites,” notes DeepDotWeb, an anonymous blog that writes about the dark net, “thereby reducing the risk of losing money when purchasing goods on dark net markets.”