For years, dark web markets and the law enforcement agencies that fight them have been locked in a cycle of raid, flush, repeat: for every online black market that is destroyed, another has always been there to take its place. But rarely has a dominant dark web market been crushed by a massive law enforcement operation only to rise from the ashes half a decade later and regain its first place – a feat that could very soon be pulled by AlphaBay, the then and future king of smuggled goods -crypto-economy.
In July 2017, a global law enforcement agency known as Operation Bayonet took AlphaBay’s extensive drug and cybercrime bazaar, seized the site’s central server in Lithuania, and arrested its creator, Alexandre Cazes, outside his home in Bangkok. Yet in August last year, AlphaBay’s number two administrator and security specialist, publicly known only as DeSnake, suddenly reappeared, announcing AlphaBay’s resurrection in a new and improved form. Now, 10 months later, thanks in part to a tumult of takedowns and mysterious disappearances of competing dark web markets, DeSnakes’ reincarnated AlphaBay is now well on its way back to its former heights at the top of the digital underworld. By some measures, it seems that it has already regained that space.
“Yes, AlphaBay is the # 1 darknet marketplace right now,” DeSnake said, writing to WIRED in a text-based conversation last week. “I told you we would be # 1 before,” he added, referring to our interview with AlphaBay’s new administrator at the time of its relaunch last summer. “As I have told you, I do what I say.”
DeSnake’s boasting is at least partially true: Last week, AlphaBay had more than 30,000 unique product listings – mostly drugs, from ecstasy to opioids, to methamphetamines – but also thousands of listings of malware and stolen data like CPR numbers and credit card details. That’s an increase from just 500 ads in September last year. Another older market called ASAP shows more than 50,000 listings. But ASAP is known for allowing vendors to post duplicate lists, and according to security firm Flashpoint, which closely monitors competing markets, AlphaBay had more than 1,300 active vendors in about the first six months of this year, compared to about 1,000 for ASAP. According to Flashpoint data, AlphaBay’s lists also appear to be growing significantly faster.
Other markets touted in dark web forums like Archetyp and Incognito meanwhile have only a few thousand or just a few hundred lists. All of this suggests that AlphaBay may already be the most popular market for dark web providers to list their items for sale.
AlphaBay’s tens of thousands of product lists are still a small fraction of the more than 350,000 it offered before its take – off in 2017, when it was the largest dark web market ever. At the FBI’s estimates, it was 10 times the size of the legendary Silk Road drug market. DeSnake admits that the new AlphaBay’s revenue has not yet come close to the level of its peak in 2017, as blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis estimates that AlphaBay generated as much as $ 2 million a day in sales. (DeSnake declined to share current sales figures, but said they are “in the big numbers”).