Silk Road wasn't even close to the biggest drug market on the internet

AgoraAgora Dark NetA screengrab of some of the items available for purchase on the Agora dark net marketplace.

The largest online narcotics emporium in the world surpassed its most famous competitor, Silk Road, just one year after launching.

The site is now the biggest online black market to ever operate on the dark web.

Agora launched in September 2013 as a marketplace for illicit goods accessible via the anonymous browser, Tor.

It has thrived ever since, and was unaffected by Operation Onymous — a November 2014 crackdown that led to the demise of several other high profile dark markets including Silk Road, Cloud 9, and Hydra.

“Silk Road may have had more monetary transactions, but Agora has far more drugs for sale,” Aamir Lakhani, senior security strategist at Fortinet, told Business Insider.

Between January 29, 2014, and August 22, 2014, Agora’s drug listings increased from 32,029 to 46,906, according to a Digital Citizens Alliance report cited by the International Business Times. The site’s total listings, including weapons and other services, rose from 41,207 to 65,595 over the same period.

‘The deep web is kind of like an iceberg’

When the founder and creator of Silk Road, 31-year-old Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison without parole, Judge Katherine B. Forrest said she hoped his harsh punishment would deter potential copy-cats.

“Anyone who might consider following in your footsteps needs to understand clearly and without equivocation that if you break the law this way, there will be very serious consequences,” Forrest said during last month’s sentencing.

But Forrest underestimated the extent to which the dark net is thriving: Agora was formed almost immediately after Silk Road was shut down, and is far from the only illicit marketplace selling drugs, weapons, and other illegal services to those who know how to search for them.

Accessed via the anonymous Tor browser, Agora shares the dark net with more temporary “ghost markets” where people “can buy basically anything they want” before the markets disappear without a trace, Lakhani explained.

“The deep web — anything not searchable by Google — is kind of like an iceberg,” Lakhani said. “Only about 30% of it is actually visible, and some say it is around 1,000 times larger than web we use every day.”

Items and services for sale range from fake passports and credit cards to hitmen and witness protection information, all of which can be bought with impunity thanks to Tor’s anonymity.

“When most people talk about deep web, they’re mostly talking about Tor, which uses onion routing,” Lakhani explained. “Just as an onion has multiple layers, onion rooting on Tor protects people’s identities by wrapping layers around their communications” that are impenetrable — and thereby untraceable — by either party.

Smarter than Silk Road

Agora has managed to evade the law in large part because, unlike Ross Ulbricht, the site’s administrators are incredibly cybersavvy.

“With enough digging, law enforcement officials could easily connect the dots that made Silk Road get caught,” Lakhani said.

Agora’s administrators, on the other hand, “haven’t displayed any of the political bravado of Dread Pirate Roberts, who frequently posted libertarian manifestos in Silk Road’s user forums and even hosted an online book club around topics in free market economic theory,” writes Andy Greenberg in Wired.

“Agora’s staff … have been tightlipped in its user forums,” Greenberg adds, “largely responding to administrative issues like site downtime and scammers.”

Agora has also carefully stayed under the radar, only allowing users with official “invite codes” to access the site, giving buyers and sellers “a sense that they have been vetted and that some people have been weeded out” such as undercover law enforcement officials, a researcher from Digital Citizen’s Alliance told Wired.

Moreover, unlike Silk Road 2.0 — a spinoff of its predecessor — Agora has yet to suffer a single major security breach or lose any of its customers’ bitcoins.

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