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AlphaBay Is Taking Over the Dark Web—Again

Versus responded by immediately announcing its retirement. “We will say that there was a clear agenda behind the way this was originally handled,” wrote the site’s administrator, who went by the name William Gibson, “but we leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

DeSnake, meanwhile, maintained both on Dread and to WIRED that he doesn’t have any personal or professional connection to threesixty, the hacker whose vulnerability discovery took down AlphaBay’s largest remaining competitor. “We handled it the best possible way, due to the severity of the issue,” DeSnake says.

Aside from the circumstances around Versus’ exit, the recently dwindling number of dark web markets is perhaps due to the generally hostile environment they face, says Flashpoint’s Ian Gray. Markets are often under bombardment from distributed denial of service attacks launched by competitors using waves of junk traffic to knock them offline and have to deal with constant disputes among buyers and sellers. Market administrators also feel the ever-present threat of law enforcement looming in the background. All of this incentivizes a take-the-money-and-run approach for any dark web administrator who achieves a certain level of success—and has allowed DeSnake, who appears to be more ambitious and persistent in his goals, to elevate AlphaBay back to the top. “With all these other shutdowns, you have so few players in the space,” says Gray. “There’s really only one that’s fairly well established, and that’s AlphaBay.”

When AlphaBay first reappeared, Gray and other dark web analysts and users expressed suspicion that DeSnake might be compromised by law enforcement. Although he seemed to prove his identity as the former AlphaBay’s right hand by signing messages with the same PGP cryptographic key he’d used in the past, many dark web denizens were wary that he might be controlled by a police agency as part of an undercover operation, as when Dutch police secretly took over the Hansa dark web drug market in 2017.

After nearly a year back online, though, DeSnake says he feels “vindicated,” given that few if any undercover operations have lasted that long. “For majority of vendors and customers the question has been put to rest,” DeSnake says.

If DeSnake has proven himself to be the legit heir to AlphaBay—and doesn’t pull an exit scam himself—he still faces the risk of a law enforcement takedown, which only grows as the reborn market takes the limelight. “It’s Russian roulette running a dark web marketplace, particularly with all the information we got from the AlphaBay takedown,” says Grant Rabenn, a former federal prosecutor who led the investigation that resulted in AlphaBay’s 2017 bust and the arrest of its original admin, Alexandre Cazes, who was later found dead in a Thai jail of an apparent suicide. (DeSnake has claimed, without proof, that Cazes was murdered.)

Rabenn hints that the 2017 case also resulted in US law enforcement obtaining a “fair amount of information” on AlphaBay’s staff. As the dark web market grows, that previous investigation might provide leads on DeSnake’s identity, with federal agencies refocusing their attention on AlphaBay and its new boss. “It’s definitely putting a target on your back, not only from the historical conduct and connections but also being the top one,” Rabenn says. “Everyone’s going to look for that one.”

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