Online drug dealers suffered a significant setback after an international law enforcement operation resulted in the closure of two of the largest hidden marketplaces on the dark web earlier this year, according to a new study from Dutch research institute TNO.
Operation Bayonet, a joint investigation launched by the FBI and Dutch police, resulted in the seizure and closure of AlphaBay and Hansa, the former of which had become the largest illicit marketplace on the dark web after the closure of the original Silk Road website in 2013.
After seizing the two sites, investigators continued to run them while collecting intelligence on dealers using them to sell drugs, weapons and other illegal goods and services.
Police were able to gather 10,000 postal addresses linked to buyers and sellers who used the sites, as well as tens of thousands of messages.
TNO monitored how many Hansa and AlphaBay users migrated to rival dark web sales platform Dream Market after the two sites were closed down, and noted whether vendors altered their behaviour as a consequence of the police operation.
The group’s researchers found that while Dream Market enjoyed a huge boost in seller numbers after the shutdown of AlphaBay at the beginning of July, the closure of Hansa failed to produce a similar result.
TNO’s findings suggest that dark web vendors may have become wary of switching to a new marketplaces after becoming suspicious that their identities may have been discovered by law enforcement agencies in the coordinated stings.
Despite this, the research institute discovered that more than half (54%) of those vendors who did migrate to Dream Market failed to change their usernames or encryption software setups.
For some dark web dealers, it seems the prospect of losing their reputation may have been a greater concern than the possibility they were under police surveillance.
The disappearance of AlphaBay had initially promoted speculation that the site’s owners may have pulled an exit scam, closing the site down and running off with users’ virtual currency.
Commenting on the success of Operation Bayonet, TNO said: “This new tactic by the FBI and [the Danish] National Police Force is likely to bear fruit for the foreseeable future.
“We still have to determine whether this innovative intervention will be impactful in the longer term but for the time being, the effects have proven remarkable in the light of previous dark web interventions.”
At the beginning of August, research carried out for the BBC revealed that dark web marketplaces enjoyed a significant boost in trade after the closure of AlphaBay and Hansa.
Elad Ben-Meir, marketing boss of online security firm Cyberint, which carried out the research, told the broadcaster: “There is growing evidence that when one illegal dark web marketplace is closed, the illicit business quickly starts to be redirected to other sites which are still active.”