You could buy pretty much any contraband you desired on DarkMarket, an online marketplace that was shuttered last week: illegal drugs, counterfeit passports, malware. The site, a kind of eBay for the dark Web, ran on Tor, the encrypted software that allows users to communicate with one another without betraying their real-life identities or I.P. addresses. Europol, which helped to coördinate an international investigation of the site, recently described DarkMarket as the largest illicit marketplace in the world—an unverifiable claim, since a handful of similarly vibrant bazaars are currently operating on the dark Web. DarkMarket was, without doubt, highly lucrative. Since May, 2019, when the site was constructed, its users have exchanged about a hundred and forty million euros’ worth of cryptocurrency. The owners of such Web sites typically take a commission of two to three per cent on each sale.
DarkMarket had a few interesting quirks. Unlike other successful dark-Web markets, it prohibited the sale of some items—including weapons, fentanyl, and images of child abuse. This tactic was seemingly designed to deter action against the site by police. (In the U.S., in particular, the sale of fentanyl on the dark Web puts a target on your back; a body called the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement monitors the issue.)
DarkMarket also advertised itself as being the only such site administered exclusively by women. This was an intriguing boast—a prosecutor told me it was made to gain users’ trust—but it was untrue. DarkMarket’s thirty-four-year-old founder and administrator was apparently an Australian man, who was arrested last weekend near the German-Danish border. The police referred to him only as Julian K. Shortly after Julian K.’s arrest, DarkMarket was shuttered by the German police. On the site, a graphic appeared, showing an insect with a female face—a logo for DarkMarket—underneath a flyswatter.
The investigation of DarkMarket was spurred by another, much larger German police investigation into an organization called CyberBunker, which I wrote about in the magazine last year. In 2013, a polyglot group of programmers and hackers, under the leadership of an eccentric fifty-three-year-old Dutchman named Xennt, moved into a Cold War-era bunker near the picturesque town of Traben-Trarbach, in the Mosel Valley. The bunker had previously belonged to the German military, and it was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Xennt, who had a lifelong fascination with underground fortresses, lived in the bunker. The rest of his crew lived aboveground, in austere barracks. Inside the bunker, Xennt’s team installed servers that hosted dark-Web sites trading illicit products and images, including terrorist material and images of child abuse.
Shortly after Xennt arrived in the Mosel Valley, his activities attracted the interest of a prosecutor named Jörg Angerer, who worked in the nearby city of Koblenz. Angerer, a genial and unassuming man who specializes in prosecuting cybercrime, encouraged a police investigation into CyberBunker. Under German law, the hosting of illicit material is a gray area. It is legal to host sites containing illegal activity, so long as the host is unaware of the content and does not actively assist the site’s owner in illegal behavior. The threshold of proof needed to prosecute such cases is high. A German police unit in Mainz spent about five years spying on Xennt, using digital and phone taps as well as undercover officers—including a man employed as a gardener at the bunker complex. In September, 2019, Xennt and most of his lieutenants were arrested in a nearby restaurant, as German police made a spectacular raid on the bunker. About six hundred and fifty officers were involved in the action. Shortly afterward, eight people were charged with facilitating two hundred and forty-nine thousand criminal transactions. [Continue reading…]