How the Dark Web’s New Favorite Drug Market Is Profiting From Silk Road 2’s Demise
When a major law enforcement crackdown killed the Silk Road 2 earlier this month, it scattered the Dark Web’s drug dealers. But one new and improved crypto market is welcoming and profiting from those refugees: an appropriately named website called Evolution.
Since the FBI’s and Europol’s Operation Onymous seized dozens of Dark Web sitesincluding the Silk Road 2, Evolution has more than tripled its rate of growth in new product listings, according to data collected by the non-profit Digital Citizens Alliance. That’s helped the eBay-style contraband bazaar’s drug offerings to grow more than 50 percent since September. Combined with the other products Evolution sells—a mix of counterfeit documents, weapons and stolen credit card numbers—it’s now the biggest black market on the Dark Web. It has around 22,000 product listings in total, far more than either Silk Road 2 or the original Silk Road ever offered.
Also on WIRED: While You Were Offline: Hollywood Gives You More Reasons to Hate It
“Evolution is the new hot commodity,” says Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) research director Dan Palumbo. “Clearly they’re benefiting from the Silk Road 2 shutdown.”
Narcotrafficking by the Numbers
Evolution was adding new product listings at a rate of between 80 and 90 a day before Operation Onymous, by the DCA’s count. Since the seizure of drug markets including Silk Road 2, Hydra, Cloud 9 and Pandora, Evolution has now been adding around 280 product listings a day. Additionally, many Evolution vendors used to list their wares on Silk Road 2 as well, but “now this will be the sole focus of their business,” says Palumbo.
Even before the Silk Road 2 was seized earlier and its alleged administrator Blake Benthall arrested, its popularity had been waning. It had been recently surpassed in size by not only Evolution, but also another drug site called Agora. As of a count of product listings by the DCA in late October, Agora was actually the top market on the collection of sites that run on the anonymity software Tor, with 18,250 listings. That was 2,000 more than the Silk Road and a few dozen more than Evolution, though Evolution’s recent boost has allowed it to outpace Agora. Silk Road 2’s plummeting market share resulted from a mixture of misfortune and incompetence: In early 2014 the site claimed it had been hacked, with $2.7 million worth of users’ bitcoins stolen from its escrow services. Since then, it had offered no escrow at all, leaving buyers dangerously vulnerable to being scammed.
Evolution doesn’t just offer an escrow, but also takes advantage of a more advanced feature built into bitcoin known as multi-signature transactions. That feature is designed to prevent both scams and seizure of escrow funds by law enforcement. It requires two out of three parties—the buyer, the user, and the site itself—to sign off on a deal before the escrowed bitcoins can be transferred. Evolution has also had much faster pageload times than competitors, most of whom run painfully slowly thanks to Tor’s process of routing web traffic among randomly chosen computers around the world. (Just how Evolution managed those speeds despite running on Tor itself isn’t clear.) And it has been online far more reliably: The website Darknet Stats counts Evolution as online 97 percent of the time, compared with 83 percent for Agora and 93.5 percent for Silk Road 2 at last check in September.
"" style="border: 0px; font-family: inherit; font-style: inherit; font-variant: inherit; font-weight: inherit; line-height: inherit; font-size: 16px; margin: 25px auto; padding: 0px; vertical-align: bottom; display: block; max-height: 600px;">
All of that has made Evolution the go-to haven for drug dealers fleeing the Silk Road 2. Another site calling itself Silk Road 3 in a bid to win over the Silk Road’s users, by contrast, has less than a thousand listings. When someone calling himself the Dread Pirate Roberts held an “ask me anything” session in Reddit’s dark net markets forum and claimed to be the new administrator of the Silk Road, he was mocked and asked questions like, “Where do you plan on doing your upcoming stint in prison?”
Just how the new top black markets like Agora and Evolution survived the feds’ Operation Onymous, however, isn’t entirely clear. Some in the security community have speculated that the crackdown used a new de-anonymization attack against Tor, and that the only sites that were spared from that attack were those hosted in places like Russia or China, beyond western law enforcement’s reach.
Getting Smaller, Cleaner, and Darker
In fact, the cops did seize one site calling itself Evolution: a scammy clone created to trick users into handing over their bitcoins. Security researcher Nik Cubrilovic has documented how as many as a third of sites seized by Operation Onymous were scam or clone sites, particularly knockoffs of many of the top drug markets including Agora and Evolution. By clearing out those clones, law enforcement may have actually cleaned up the Dark Web, removing fraudsters and making users feel safer spending their money on reputable black markets sites like Evolution.
Evolution’s rise in the Dark Web drug trade signals perhaps the final shift away from the political roots of the original Silk Road. The Silk Road’s administrator known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, after all, espoused radical libertarian views and banned all but victimless contraband on the site. Evolution’s creator, by contrast, is a mysterious figure known as Verto who previously ran the Tor Carding Forum, a credit card fraud site. And in addition to drugs, counterfeits and guns, Evolution also sells stolen credit cards, a kind of crime never allowed on the Silk Road.“Evolution is the anti-Silk Road,” says DCA’s Palumbo. “Rather than being centered around a libertarian ideal, it’s just a business.”
If the new, post-crackdown Dark Web is darker, though, it’s also smaller. Although Evolution has grown in the wake of Operation Onymous, the Dark Web drug market as a whole has been pruned dramatically to a total of about 44,000 listings compared with 65,500 listings in August, according to the DCA. That brings it below even the 46,000 listings on the sites in January of this year.
But Palumbo says that given how fast the Dark Web grew over the last year, that setback isn’t likely to last. “If I had to guess, I would imagine you’ll see new sites pop up, and someone will take place of Silk Road as the third major market,” he says, “I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them overtake the total number of listings before the takedown