A distributed resilience among darknet markets?

You may have seen the news earlier this year that two large darknet marketplaces, Alphabay and Hansa, have been taken down by international law enforcement. Particularly interesting about these takedowns is that they were deliberately structured to seed distrust among market participants: after Alphabay closed many traders migrated to Hansa, not aware that it had already covertly been taken over by the police. As trading continued on this smaller platform, the Dutch police and their peers kept track of account logins, private messages, and incoming orders. Two weeks later they also closed Hansa, and revealed their successful data collection efforts to the public. Many arrests followed. The message to illicit traders: you can try your best to stay anonymous, but eventually we will catch you.

By coincidence, our small research team of Joss Wright, Mark Graham, and I had set out earlier in the year to investigate the economic geography of darknet markets. We had started our data collection a few weeks earlier, and the events took us by surprise: it doesn’t happen every day that a primary information source gets shut down by the police. While we had anticipated that some markets would close during our investigations, it all happened rather quickly. On the other hand, this also gave us a rare opportunity to observe what happens after such a takedown. The actions by law enforcement were deliberately structured to seed distrust in illicit trading platforms. Did this effort succeed? Let’s have a look at the data.

The chart above shows weekly trading volumes on darknet markets for the period from May to July 2017. The black line shows the overall trading volume across all markets we observed at the time. Initially, Alphabay (in blue) represented a significant share of this overall trade, while Hansa (in yellow) was comparably small. When Alphabay was closed in week 27, overall sales dropped: many traders lost their primary market. The following week, Hansa trading volumes more than doubled, until it was closed as well. More important however is the overall trend: while the takedowns lead to a short-term reduction in trade, in the longer term, people simply moved to other markets. (Note that we estimate trading volumes from buyer reviews, which are often posted days or weeks after a sale. The apparent Alphabay decline in weeks 25-27 is likely attributable to this delay in posting feedback: many reviews simply hadn’t been posted yet by the time of the market closure.)

In other words, within less than a month, overall trading volumes were back to previous levels. This matches prior research findings after similar takedown efforts — see below for links to some relevant papers. But does this suggest that the darknet market ecosystem as a whole has a kind of distributed resilience against interventions? This remains to be seen. While the demand for illicit goods appears unchanged, these markets are under increasing pressures. Since the two takedowns, there have been reports of further market closures, long-running distributed denial of service attacks, extortion attempts, and other challenges. As a result, there is renewed uncertainty about the long-term viability of these platforms. We’ll keep monitoring.

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Introducing Martin Dittus, Data Scientist and Darknet Researcher

We’re sitting upstairs, hunched over a computer, and Martin is showing me the darknet. I guess I have as good an idea as most people what the darknet is, i.e. not much. We’re looking at the page of someone claiming to be in the UK who’s selling “locally produced” cannabis, and Martin is wondering if there’s any way of telling if it’s blood cannabis. How you would go about determining this? Much of what is sold on these markets is illegal, and can lead to prosecution, as with any market for illegal products.

But we’re not buying anything, just looking. The stringent ethics process governing his research means he currently can’t even contact anyone on the marketplace.

[Read more: Exploring the Darknet in Five Easy Questions]

Martin Dittus is a Data Scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, and I’ve come to his office to find out about the OII’s investigation (undertaken with Mark Graham and Joss Wright) of the economic geographies of illegal economic activities in anonymous Internet marketplaces, or more simply: “mapping the darknet.” Basically: what’s being sold, by whom, from where, to where, and what’s the overall value?

Between 2011 and 2013, the Silk Road marketplace attracted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin-based transactions before being closed down by the FBI, but relatively little is known about the geography of this global trade. The darknet throws up lots of interesting research topics: around traffic in illegal wildlife products, the effect of healthcare policies on demand for illegal prescription drugs, whether law enforcement has (or can have) much of an impact, questions around the geographies of trade (e.g. sites of production and consumption), and the economics of these marketplaces—as well as the ethics of researching all this.

OII researchers tend to come from very different disciplinary backgrounds, and I’m always curious about what brings people here. A computer scientist by training, Martin first worked as a software developer for Last.fm, an online music community that built some of the first pieces of big data infrastructure, “because we had a lot of data and very little money.” In terms of the professional experience he says it showed him how far you can get by being passionate about your work—and the importance of resourcefulness; “that a good answer is not to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ but to say: ‘Well, we can’t do it this way, but here are three other ways we can do it instead.’”

Resourcefulness is certainly something you need when researching darknet marketplaces. Two very large marketplaces, AlphaBay and Hansa were recently taken down by the FBI, DEA and Dutch National Police, part-way through Martin’s data collection. Having your source suddenly disappear is a worry for any long-term data scraping process. However in this case, it raises the opportunity of moving beyond a simple observational study to a quasi-experiment. The disruption allows researchers to observe what happens in the overall marketplace after the external intervention—does trade actually go down, or simply move elsewhere? How resilient are these marketplaces to interference by law enforcement?

Having originally worked in industry for a few years, Martin completed a Master’s programme at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, which included training in cartography. The first time I climbed the three long flights of stairs to his office to say hello we quickly got talking about crisis mapping platforms, something he’d subsequently worked on during his PhD at UCL. He’s particularly interested in the historic context for the recent emergence of these platforms, where large numbers of people come together over a shared purpose: “Platforms like Wikipedia, for example, can have significant social and economic impact, while at the same time not necessarily being designed platforms. Wikipedia is something that kind of emerged, it’s the online encyclopaedia that somehow worked. For me that meant that there is great power in these platform models, but very little understanding of what they actually represent, or how to design them; even how to conceptualise them.”

“You can think of Wikipedia as a place for discourse, as a community platform, as an encyclopaedia, as an example of collective action. There are many theoretical ways to interpret it, and I think this makes it very powerful, but also very hard to understand what Wikipedia is; or indeed any large and complex online platform, like the darknet markets we’re looking at now. I think we’re at a moment in history where we have this new superpower that we don’t fully understand yet, so it’s a time to build knowledge.” Martin claims to have become “a PhD student by accident” while looking for a way to participate in this knowledge building: and found that doing a PhD was a great way to do so.

Whether discussing Wikipedia, crisis-mapping, the darknet, or indeed data infrastructures, it’s great to hear people talking about having to study things from many different angles — because that’s what the OII, as a multidisciplinary department, does in spades. It’s what we do. And Martin certainly agrees: “I feel incredibly privileged to be here. I have a technical background, but these are all intersectional, interdisciplinary, highly complex questions, and you need a cross-disciplinary perspective to look at them. I think we’re at a point where we’ve built a lot of the technological building blocks for online spaces, and what’s important now are the social questions around them: what does it mean, what are those capacities, what can we use them for, and how do they affect our societies?”

Social questions around darknet markets include the development of trust relationships between buyers and sellers (despite the explicit goal of law enforcement agencies to fundamentally undermine trust between them); identifying societal practices like consumption of recreational drugs, particularly when transplanted into a new online context; and the nature of market resilience, like when markets are taken down by law enforcement. “These are not, at core, technical questions,” Martin says. “Technology will play a role in answering them, but fundamentally these are much broader questions. What I think is unique about the OII is that it has a strong technical competence in its staff and research, but also a social, political, and economic science foundation that allows a very broad perspective on these matters. I think that’s absolutely unique.”

There were only a few points in our conversation where Martin grew awkward, a few topics he said he “would kind of dance around“ rather than provide on-record chat for a blog post. He was keen not to inadvertently provide a how-to guide for obtaining, say, fentanyl on the darknet; there are tricky unanswered questions of class (do these marketplaces allow a gentrification of illegal activities?) and the whitewashing of the underlying violence and exploitation inherent to these activities (thinking again about blood cannabis); and other areas where there’s simply not yet enough research to make firm pronouncements.

But we’ll certainly touch on some of these areas as we document the progress of the project over the coming months, exploring some maps of the global market as they are released, and also diving into the ethics of researching the darknet; so stay tuned!

Until then, Martin Dittus can be found at:

Web: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/martin-dittus/
Email: martin.dittus@oii.ox.ac.uk
Twitter: @dekstop

Follow the darknet project at: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/projects/economic-geog-darknet/

Twitter: @OiiDarknet

Exploring the Darknet in Five Easy Questions

Darknet marketplaces are typically set up to engage in the trading of illicit products and services, and are considered criminal in most jurisdictions. Image: Dennis Yip (Flickr).

Many people are probably aware of something called “the darknet” (also sometimes called the “dark web”) or might have a vague notion of what it might be. However, many probably don’t know much about the global flows of drugs, weapons, and other illicit items traded on darknet marketplaces like AlphaBay and Hansa, the two large marketplaces that were recently shut down by the FBI, DEA and Dutch National Police.

We caught up with Martin Dittus, a data scientist working with Mark Graham and Joss Wright on the OII’s darknet mapping project, to find out some basics about darknet markets, and why they’re interesting to study.

Firstly: what actually is the darknet?

Martin: The darknet is simply a part of the Internet you access using anonymising technology, so you can visit websites without being easily observed. This allows you to provide (or access) services online that can’t be tracked easily by your ISP or law enforcement. There are actually many ways in which you can visit the darknet, and it’s not technically hard. The most popular anonymising technology is probably Tor. The Tor browser functions just like Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox: it’s a piece of software you install on your machine to then open websites. It might be a bit of a challenge to know which websites you can then visit (you won’t find them on Google), but there are darknet search engines, and community platforms that talk about it.

The term ‘darknet’ is perhaps a little bit misleading, in that a lot of these activities are not as hidden as you might think: it’s inconvenient to access, and it’s anonymising, but it’s not completely hidden from the public eye. Once you’re using Tor, you can see any information displayed on darknet websites, just like you would on the regular internet. It is also important to state that this anonymisation technology is entirely legal. I would personally even argue that such tools are important for democratic societies: in a time where technology allows pervasive surveillance by your government, ISP, or employer, it is important to have digital spaces where people can communicate freely.

And is this also true for the marketplaces you study on the darknet?

Martin: Definitely not! Darknet marketplaces are typically set up to engage in the trading of illicit products and services, and as a result are considered criminal in most jurisdictions. These market platforms use darknet technology to provide a layer of anonymity for the participating vendors and buyers, on websites ranging from smaller single-vendor sites to large trading platforms. In our research, we are interested in the larger marketplaces, these are comparable to Amazon or eBay—platforms which allow many individuals to offer and access a variety of products and services.

The first darknet market platform to acquire some prominence and public reporting was the Silk Road—between 2011 and 2013, it attracted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin-based transactions, before being shut down by the FBI. Since then, many new markets have been launched, shut down, and replaced by others. Despite the size of such markets, relatively little is known about the economic geographies of the illegal economic activities they host. This is what we are investigating at the Oxford Internet Institute.

And what do you mean by “economic geography”?

Martin: Economic geography tries to understand why certain economic activity happens in some places, but not others. In our case, we might ask where heroin dealers on darknet markets are geographically located, or where in the world illicit weapon dealers tend to offer their goods. We think this is an interesting question to ask for two reasons. First, because it connects to a wide range of societal concerns, including drug policy and public health. Observing these markets allows us to establish an evidence base to better understand a range of societal concerns, for example by tracing the global distribution of certain emergent practices. Second, it falls within our larger research interest of internet geography, where we try to understand the ways in which the internet is a localised medium, and not just a global one as is commonly assumed.

So how do you go about studying something that’s hidden?

Martin: While the strong anonymity on darknet markets makes it difficult to collect data about the geography of actual consumption, there is a large amount of data available about the offered goods and services themselves. These marketplaces are highly structured—just like Amazon there’s a catalogue of products, every product has a title, a price, and a vendor who you can contact if you have questions. Additionally, public customer reviews allow us to infer trading volumes for each product. All these things are made visible, because these markets seek to attract customers. This allows us to observe large-scale trading activity involving hundreds of thousands of products and services.

Almost paradoxically, these “hidden” dark markets allow us to make visible something that happens at a societal level that otherwise could be very hard to research. By comparison, studying the distribution of illicit street drugs would involve the painstaking investigative work of speaking to individuals and slowly trying to acquire the knowledge of what is on offer and what kind of trading activity takes place; on the darknet it’s all right there. There are of course caveats: for example, many markets allow hidden listings, which means we don’t know if we’re looking at all the activity. Also, some markets are more secretive than others. Our research is limited to platforms that are relatively open to the public.

Finally: will you be sharing some of the data you’re collecting?

Martin: This is definitely our intention! We have been scraping the largest marketplaces, and are now building a reusable dataset with geographic information at the country level. Initially, this will be used to support some of our own studies. We are currently mapping, visualising, and analysing the data, building a fairly comprehensive picture of darknet market trades. It is also important for us to state that we’re not collecting detailed consumption profiles of participating individuals (not that we could). We are independent academic researchers, and work neither with law enforcement, nor with platform providers.

Primarily, we are interested in the activity as a large-scale global phenomenon, and for this purpose, it is sufficient to look at trading data in the aggregate. We’re interested in scenarios that might allow us to observe and think about particular societal concerns, and then measure the practices around those concerns in ways that are quite unusual, that otherwise would be very challenging. Ultimately, we would like to find ways of opening up the data to other researchers, and to the wider public. There are a number of practical questions attached to this, and the specific details are yet to be decided — so stay tuned!

Martin Dittus is a researcher and data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, where he studies the economic geography of darknet marketplaces. More: @dekstop

Follow the project here: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/projects/economic-geog-darknet/

Twitter: @OiiDarknet

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Martin Dittus was talking to OII Managing Editor David Sutcliffe.