Prominent digital drug marketplaces taken down

Two of the world's most notorious darknet marketplaces have been knocked out in a one-two punch that officials say yielded a trove of new intelligence about the drug merchants that operate out of the hidden corners of the internet.

No. 1 darknet drug site AlphaBay, which went offline on July 5, was already widely assumed to have been taken out by authorities. But on Thursday, European law enforcement revealed that a second website known as Hansa had also been in police hands for the past month, an announcement apparently designed to sow panic among tech-savvy dealers and buyers.

"This is the largest darknet marketplace takedown in history," Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters in Washington, according to a prepared version of his statement. He accused online vendors of "pouring fuel on the fire of the national drug epidemic" and warned that "the darknet is not a place to hide."

A California indictment named AlphaBay's founder as Canadian Alexandre Cazes, saying the 27-year-old had amassed a fortune of $23 million, including a small fortune in digital currency. The indictment said he spent the money on real estate, luxury cars and the pursuit of "economic citizenship" in Liechtenstein, Thailand and Cyprus.

Cazes appears to have died in police custody just over a week ago. The Bangkok Post, citing police, said Cazes was found dead in his cell at the Narcotics Suppression Bureau office on July 12, having apparently committed suicide.

Thai and Canadian authorities didn't return messages seeking comment Thursday.

The way that the police operation was rolled out appeared designed to give police as many new leads as possible. Because sellers fled en masse from AlphaBay to Hansa when the latter website went down, police were able to monitor them in real time as they set up fresh accounts and began to do business.

The full month that Dutch police spent monitoring the activity on Hansa meant that international police agencies had some 10,000 addresses for Hansa buyers outside of Holland.

The two-step operation was "psychological warfare," said Nicolas Christin, a darknet expert at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It is definitely going to create a bit of chaos," he said. "There have been takedowns in the past...And what we've seen in the past is initially there is quite a bit of turmoil for like a week or two weeks and then things cool down and people move to other marketplaces that haven't been taken down."

Darknet drug websites have thrived following the appearance - and subsequent takedown - of illegal goods bazaar Silk Road. The darknet, a part of the internet accessible only through specialized anonymity-providing tools such as Tor, is a particularly attractive place for online drug merchants and buyers because they can operate with relative openness while still keeping their identities secret.

Experts said Cazes appears to have been caught out by mistakes rather than a weakness in the underlying security technology AlphaBay used. According to the indictment, he accidentally broadcast his personal Hotmail address in welcome messages sent to new users.

The success of this operation doesn't mean that darknet drug markets will stay down for long.

"Unfortunately, the demand for these kinds of goods and services is large enough that we will always see other dark markets rise in place of those recently busted," said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a civil liberties group in Washington.

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