Cops wage psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare against on­line drug bazaars

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

HOUS­TON: In an in­no­va­tive blow to il­licit in­ter­net com­merce, cy­ber­po­lice shut down the world’s lead­ing “dark­net” mar­ket­place - then qui­etly seized a sec­ond bazaar to amass in­tel­li­gence on il­licit drug mer­chants and buy­ers.

Al­phaBay, for­merly the in­ter­net’s largest dark­net site, had al­ready gone off­line July 5 with the ar­rest in Thai­land of its al­leged cre­ator and ad­min­is­tra­tor. But on Thurs­day, Euro­pean law en­force­ment re­vealed that Dutch cy­ber­po­lice had for a month been run­ning Hansa Mar­ket. Like Al­phaBay, Hansa op­er­ated in the dark­net, an anonymity-friendly in­ter­net nether­world in­ac­ces­si­ble to stan­dard browsers. Al­phaBay’s users had flocked to Hansa, which is largely based in the Nether­lands. The an­nounce­ments Thurs­day on both sides of the At­lantic sowed panic among the sites’ tech-savvy buy­ers and ven­dors.

Dark­ness over the dark­net

“The cryp­tomar­ket com­mu­nity (is) spooked,” said dark­net re­searcher Pa­trick Shor­tis, of Brunel Uni­ver­sity in Lon­don. “Red­dit boards are filled with users ask­ing ques­tions about their or­ders.” In Wash­ing­ton, US At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions deemed the op­er­a­tion “the largest dark­net mar­ket­place take­down in his­tory.” Dark­net ven­dors are “pour­ing fuel on the fire of the na­tional drug epi­demic,” he said, specif­i­cally cit­ing cases of two US teenagers killed this year, one a 13-year-old Utah boy, by over­doses of syn­thetic opi­oids pur­chased on Al­phaBay. More than two-thirds of the quar­ter mil­lion list­ings on the two sites were for il­le­gal drugs, said Ses­sions. Other il­licit wares for sale in­cluded weapons, coun­ter­feit and stolen iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and mal­ware. The po­lice agency Europol es­ti­mates Al­phaBay did $1 bil­lion in busi­ness af­ter its 2014 creation.

Dead in prison

A Cal­i­for­nia in­dict­ment named Al­phaBay’s founder as Alexan­dre Cazes, a 25-year-old Cana­dian who died in Thai po­lice cus­tody on July 12. The coun­try’s nar­cotics po­lice chief told re­porters Cazes hanged him­self in jail just prior to a sched­uled court hear­ing. He’d been ar­rested with DEA and FBI as­sis­tance.

Cazes amassed a $23 mil­lion for­tune, much of it in dig­i­tal cur­ren­cies, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. He bought real es­tate and lux­ury cars, in­clud­ing a $900,000 Lam­borgh­ini, and pur­sued “eco­nomic cit­i­zen­ship” in Liecht­en­stein, Cyprus and Thai­land. A $400,000 villa pur­chase in Fe­bru­ary had al­ready bought him and his wife An­tiguan pass­ports, a US for­fei­ture com­plaint said. He used what he claimed was a web de­sign com­pany, EBX Tech­nolo­gies, as a front, the in­dict­ment said.

Just two other ar­rests were an­nounced Thurs­day. Both were of Hansa sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tors in the Ger­man town of Siegen, who were taken into cus­tody in June. Europol spokes­woman Claire Ge­orges said they were not named un­der pri­vacy law. The US in­dict­ment lists sev­eral Al­phaBay co-con­spir­a­tors by ti­tle but not name. They in­clude a se­cu­rity chief, a pub­lic re­la­tions man­ager and mod­er­a­tors. A US at­tor­ney han­dling the case, Grant Rabenn, would not com­ment on whether ad­di­tional ar­rests were ex­pected.

“Psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare”

Ni­co­las Christin, a dark­net ex­pert at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity, called the one-two take­down punch “psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare.” “It is def­i­nitely go­ing to cre­ate a bit of chaos,” he said, though af­ter take­downs in the past buy­ers and sell­ers move to other for­mer sec­ond-tier sites af­ter a few weeks of tur­moil.

But this time, Dutch po­lice have upped the ante by craftily track­ing dark­net users, and that’s ex­pected to yield fu­ture ar­rests. They be­gan run­ning the Hansa site on June 20, im­per­son­at­ing its ad­min­is­tra­tors, col­lect­ing user­names and pass­words, log­ging data on thou­sands of drug sales and in­form­ing lo­cal po­lice in na­tions where ship­ments would be ar­riv­ing. Dutch cy­ber­crime pros­e­cu­tor Mar­tijn Eg­berts said Dutch po­lice had scooped up some 10,000 ad­dresses for Hansa buy­ers out­side Hol­land.

Run­ning the site was a chal­lenge, Eg­berts said, with po­lice forced to me­di­ate fre­quent dis­putes be­tween buy­ers and sell­ers. “It turned out to be a lot of work!” he said. “The big­gest ef­fort for us was to get the site go­ing on a way that no­body no­ticed it was us.”

Eg­berts noted with sat­is­fac­tion that on­line ru­mors about other dark­net drug mar­ket­places pos­si­bly be­ing com­pro­mised were al­ready spread­ing. “This is the mo­ment to show the world that you can’t trust dark mar­kets any­more, be­cause you never know who is the ad­min,” he said.

But sea­soned buy­ers and sell­ers aren’t likely to get tripped up, and will sim­ply be­come more cau­tious, Christin said.

Branches off the Silk Road

Dark­net web­sites have thrived since the 2011 ap­pear­ance of the Silk Road bazaar, which was taken down two years later. Mer­chants and buy­ers keep their iden­ti­ties se­cret by us­ing en­crypted communications and anonymity-pro­vid­ing tools such as the Tor browser. The dark­net it­self is only ac­ces­si­ble only through such spe­cial­ized apps. Cazes’ own care­less­ness ap­par­ently tripped him up - not the un­der­ly­ing se­cu­rity tech­nol­ogy Al­phaBay used.

Ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment, he ac­ci­den­tally broad­cast his per­sonal Hot­mail ad­dress in wel­come mes­sages sent to new users. And when he was tracked down and ar­rested in Thai­land, Cazes was logged into the Al­phaBay web­site as its ad­min­is­tra­tor, it says.

Cazes also used the same per­sonal email ad­dress - “pim­p_alex-91@hot­ - on a PayPal ac­count. —AP

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