Five years later, after the dark web leader was purged from the internet, it’s rebounding with more growth in the world of the darknet.
Alphabay was undeniably the king of the contraband cryptocurrency before the FBI took it down in 2017.
With over 35,000 listings on the cards today, has AlphaBay taken the helm of being the largest darknet market again? Let’s find out.
Alphabay: A Lookback
The summer of 2017 saw the coordination of one of the most fascinating and well-planned international law enforcement endeavours in history, in which several of the most successful darknet marketplaces were taken down.
One of the most notable and intuitive of this group of marketplaces was AlphaBay Market since the Silk Road. At its peak, AlphaBay’s daily revenue ranged from approximately $600,000 to $800,000 on 300,000 listings from over 40,000 vendors and a customer base of about 200,000 users.
Operation Bayonet led to the shutdown of several widely noted markets, beginning with a lesser-known one called Hansa. Dutch law enforcement secretly operated Hansa for about a month after compromising it. While the Dutch law enforcement agencies were busy focusing their efforts on Hansa Market, the FBI coordinated with Thai Royal police to apprehend AlphaBay founder Alexander Cazes aka alpha02.
After Alphabay’s closure, thousands of its clientele and vendors descended on the then government-ran Hansa market to buy and sell illicit goods and services. Dutch law enforcement that operated servers throughout the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Germany took advantage of the sudden surge in the traffic of Hansa in the following weeks.
Law enforcement officials effectively used this data to gather information on high-value targets. They identified a total of 10,000 international addresses of customers and then forwarded them to Europol.
The Royal Thai Police received assistance from the FBI when they coordinated the extradition of the 24-year-old Canadian administrator to the United States of America. However, after Cazes was detained for seven days in the Narcotics Suppression Bureau in Bangkok, reports of him committing suicide came into the news. Bangkok authorities promised to carry out an expert autopsy, while US law enforcement authorities showed no interest in verifying his death.
The US Justice Department successfully confiscated Alexander Caze’s and his wife’s possessions, including his bank accounts, personal and AlphaBay cryptocurrency accounts, and high-end residences in Bangkok. The FBI obtained it through a lengthy course of action in which his online image was linked to his real life through the carelessly leaked email address, [email protected].
When Thai authorities searched his apartment in Bangkok, his unencrypted laptop was confiscated, which was logged in to the market and server. Officers carried out similar search warrants for the server’s hardware in his hometown, in Quebec, Canada.
Return of DeSnake
Cazes was not the only one in command who operated AlphaBay. He had a security administrator who was famously known as “DeSnake”. According to various dark web historical records, it is known that DeSnake was associated with Russia. However, his real identity is still unknown.
DeSnake appeared on Dread in August 2021, a Reddit-like forum on the dark web moderated by two users, Hugbunter and Paris. As Dread users were hesitant to believe this, Dread moderators vouched for him as he signed his posts with a PGP key.
DeSnake announced the resurrection of the famous AlphaBay market on both Tor and I2P. He mentioned the detailed instructions and suggestions for customers to browse directly on the peer-to-peer network instead of using Tor. He called AlphaBay’s Tor services mirrors of their primary market active on I2P.
Later, on a platform called ghostbin, DeSnake claimed that AlphaBay would be bringing the forum back after seeing the poor state of various active darknet marketplaces. He also added that the forum would honour the legacy of Alphabay’s late founder Cazes.
DeSnake announced that AlphaBay had created a system known as “AlphaGuard” that would allow threat actors on the forum to withdraw the money in the event of law enforcement authorities seizing the market again.
The new AlphaBay also had some significant changes in its rules and regulation policy. Previously, AlphaBay allowed every kind of drug on the market, which was one of the reasons for them coming into the sight of law enforcement authorities.
This time, correcting their previous mistakes, AlphaBay banned dealing with products such as fentanyl, Covid-19 vaccines, and ransomware. They also banned all market-related activities in the regions like Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.
DeSnake also claimed that the revamped AlphaBay would have an “Automatic Dispute Resolver” feature, which would resolve conflicts between prospective buyers and vendors in a matter of minutes without needing a third party or moderator. In addition, the marketplace will also have a ranking system of trustworthiness to minimise fraudulent activities.
AlphaBay will also be offering a discussion forum for its marketplace. The administration plans to post the source code for a famous banking trojan and boost the return of its private malware sub-community.
AlphaBay’s reappearance saw a slow start. Despite the confidence shared by DeSnake with increased security features such as AlphaGuard and the decentralisation of AlphaBay, there was a bit of scepticism in the air among vendors and consumers, taking into consideration the actions of law enforcement agencies on the market.
DeSnake found ways to systematise market operations to avoid previous blunders that caused Cazes apprehension.
In the past ten months, because of the recent commotion of takedowns and the disappearance of competing for dark web markets, the recently revitalised DeSnake’s AlphaBay, is on the way to taking over its helm again. To a certain extent, it is said that AlphaBay has already regained the top position.
“Yes, AlphaBay is the #1 darknet marketplace right now,” says DeSnake in a text-based conversation with Wired.
As of April 2022, AlphaBay had more than 30,000 listings registered to the website. Mostly from drugs such as ecstasy, opioids, and meth. In addition to drugs, digital products such as malware, stolen data, social security numbers and credit card details also had thousands of listings. This listing data went up from 500 to 30,000 since last September of 2021.
ASAP, another market with 50,000 listings, gave tight competition to AlphaBay. However, Flashpoint, a cyber-security firm that tracks darknet markets, claimed that ASAP allows vendorS to post multiple listings. According to the data provided by Flashpoint, ASAP had 1000 vendors compared to AlphaBay’s 1,300 lists of active vendors.
Compared to this data, other darknet markets like Archetyp and Incognito had vendors in three digits only. In August 2022, the ASAP admin posted a cryptic message saying the market had been hacked. This gave AlphaBay the upper hand to emerge as a current darknet market leader.
DeSnake anticipates that AlphaBay’s sales have yet to approach the peak it reached in 2017. However, Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis firm, claimed that the new AlphaBay is making $2 million a day.
Unlike many other platforms, the new AlphaBay enables users to trade only in Monero, the privacy-focused cryptocurrency, as opposed to Bitcoin, which is easily trackable on the blockchain. It makes it challenging to analyse the annual earnings and may lead to lesser sales per listing as many customers are more inclined to use bitcoin.
AlphayBay’s rapid growth is due to law enforcement agencies’ series of takedowns on various darknet markets. According to the data, nearly ten darknet markets have been brought down since October 2018. For instance, Dark Market, which was on the radar of Europol for a long time, finally got busted early this year. Another example is a Russia-based darknet market known as Hydra, whose servers were confiscated by law enforcement agencies in April this year.
Other markets, like Dark0de and World Market, are believed to pull an exit scam, running away with the user’s money. Markets like White House and Cannazone staged a proper exit, giving users time to withdraw their money.
What’s in the Cards for the Future?
In an upcoming development, DeSnake is focused on testing and finalising the payment system that will essentially replace the present protection and dispute system known as “Alphaguard”. Further, DeSnake will carry the project forward by bringing a strategic marketing team.
DeSnake has announced that he wishes to create a decentralised network that hosts dark web marketplaces over thousands of servers that are a type of encrypted, unseizable BitTorrent to the present marketplaces Napster. He expects to have a beta test of the platform ready at the end of the year and wishes to make a move in 2023.
DeSnake is putting significant effort into making I2P accepted as opposed to Tor. It has not made an impact on the marketplace as anticipated. Other marketplaces, including Bohemia and Libertas, are attempting the same thing, but the adoptions seem slow and not attractive to users and vendors.
AlphaBay has so far weathered DDoS attacks, controversy, and scepticism and is well positioned to become a safe haven for displaced seized darknet vendors.