The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday the “first nationwide undercover action to target vendors of illicit goods” on the dark web, the portion of the internet only accessible via specific software like the Tor network. According to the DOJ, the operation involved at least five federal agencies and entailed Homeland Security Investigations agents posing as money launderers, leading “to the arrest and impending prosecution of more than 35 Darknet vendors.”
The DOJ claimed the operation resulted in the seizure of “massive amounts of illegal narcotics,” over 100 firearms “including handguns, assault rifles, and a grenade launcher,” $3.6 million in currency and gold bars, and cryptocurrency with an “approximate value of more than $20 million.”
The dark web is in fact mostly full of low-effort garbage, but it’s acquired a sinister reputation over the course of the past few years for its association with criminal enterprises like black market auction and e-retail sites trafficking everything from drugs and guns to ransomware. Other dark web hubs have included child abuse rings. But such networks are only as secure as their weakest links. In the past few years, authorities have more than clued on to dark web enterprises and have infiltrated and shut down major networks like onetime giant Silk Road and its upstart competitors AlphaBay and Hansa.
Per Vice, tactics police have used to bust dark web black markets have included undercover infiltration, malware, IP harvesting, monitoring cryptocurrency transactions, and simply intercepting shipments. In the case of Hansa, authorities actually secretly took control of the entire operation and rewrote its code to harvest instead of encrypt user data.
The BBC reported in 2017 that criminal activity on the dark web tends to simply fan out to other sites after takedowns of high-profile markets. While Europol adviser Alan Woodward told the news network “sellers believe they are relatively immune,” he added it is possible repeated high-profile busts have freaked out buyers who have to provide “delivery addresses and the like.” According to The Next Web, some sellers who have built good reputations and customer bases have begun moving to allegedly safer private shops instead of semi-public marketplaces.