You have to give it to shadowy, corporate-funded lobby groups: You can get some seriously cool data when there’s big money on the line. This week saw the release of the newest report from a DC-based activist group called the Digital Citizens Alliance, an anti-piracy organization that is often accused of astroturfing for large media conglomerates. The report focuses on the current state of the Deep Web drug market and how, despite the shut down of the Silk Road last year, Silk Road 2.0 is already bigger than its predecessor. If the FBI or other law enforcement agencies want to put a real dent in the Deep Web, it will have to try a lot harder.
The overall aim of the Digital Citizens Alliance is to create panic among those less informed about the internet — arguing, among other things, that joining a BitTorrent swarm can grant total computer access to hackers, and that YouTube and Google intentionally host videos promoting or even selling drugs and prostitution. Its main goal seems to be to exaggerate every bad thing about the internet, scaring people out of supporting things like net neutrality and an internet free from censorship. All that said, however, its latest report on the state of Deep Web drug markets is interesting even without the hackery of their analysis. The raw data speaks for itself — and happily for the froth-manufacturers at the DCA, requires no extra spin to be interesting. The core insight is that, following the Silk Road shutdown last year, the Silk Road 2.0 has risen to attract more drug listings than we’ve ever seen before.
It’s not just the Silk Road that’s grown, either. In the wake of the Silk Road’s temporary demise users naturally ran to alternatives, and though most of those quickly fell under the weight of scams and thievery, the basic diversification of the user base remains. Though SR2.0 is by far the largest dark market, it still only accounts for about 41% of all listings — down from more than 70% last year. Competitors like Agora and Pandora collectively hold the majority now, and that’s as assessed by a report which openly admits that it excluded a further 25 small dark markets of which its authors were aware.
While it’s true that the Silk Road is bigger than ever before, that’s mostly a result of the fact that the Deep Web is bigger than ever before, as well. The Silk Road bust was the single best thing to ever happen to the Deep Web — a criminal Streisand effect seems to be at work here, as the Deep Web makes its way into everything from political speeches to House of Cards. After the bust several new high-profile markets sprang up to sell drugs, hacking, assassination — though of course we have no way of knowing how legitimate most of it really is.
People seem to have forgotten that immediately after the raid, conventional wisdom warned against ever again buying from any vendor who was active at that time; anyone selling during the bust could now very easily be an FBI plant. (Read: How to use Tor and get on the Deep Web.)And that’s the problem. For every user exalting the rise of a new Silk Road, there’s another addressing the rampant scamming and theft it now hosts. Many users on the official Silk Road 2.0 forums are worried that drug vendors are being added regularly despite vendor registration having been closed for months — a sign many take to mean the site’s mods are instating fake vendors. Are they cops? Bots? Russians?
Ross Ulbricht’s arrest sparked interest in super-security, but that rush has ended. Now, popular Silk Road vendors like “weedgirlz” start Twitter accounts and “clearnet” websitesadvertising their illegal businesses. There’s simply no institutional or individual memory here — a fact that makes individual busts very easy for police, but overall victory almost unimaginable. Just as in “real life” crime, Deep Web rings are intractable, dynamic populations that resist the kind of social engineering these arrests aspire to be. As long as the technology to do illegal things online even might exist, people will use it.
The best chance to really hurt the dark markets has already passed. If the Silk Road 2.0 has in fact been a honeypot all along (and many still suspect that to be the case), that would be a major and above all long lastingblow to the Deep Web. Not because of the arrests or the convictions, but because of the method by which they were acquired.
The Deep Web’s true strength is not in encryption or anonymity, but in confidence. The FBI needs to imbue this community not with fear of prison, but with fear of theirfriends. If it can’t, then law enforcement will simply never get a handle on Deep Web criminals, and the markets will keep growing as they have been for years now. The occasional, aimless bust won’t change that.