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We have a data collection gap, roughly corresponding to the time Silk Road was taken down. Shortly after the Silk Road take-down we started measuring Black Market Reloaded, and realized that it has already made up for a vast portion of the volumes previously seen on Silk Road

Measuring the Longitudinal Evolution of the Online Anonymous Marketplace Ecosystem.

USENIX Security, pp.33-48, (2015)

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Abstract

February 2011 saw the emergence of Silk Road, the first successful online anonymous marketplace, in which buyers and sellers could transact with anonymity properties far superior to those available in alternative online or offline means of commerce. Business on Silk Road, primarily involving narcotics trafficking, rapidly boomed, and comp...More

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Introduction
  • In February 2011, a new Tor hidden service [16], called “Silk Road,” opened its doors.
  • The Silk Road operator famously declared in August 2013 in an interview with Forbes, that the “War on Drugs” had been won by Silk Road and its patrons [18].
  • While this was an overstatement, the business model of Silk Road had proven viable enough that competitors, such as Black Market Reloaded, Atlantis, or the Sheep Marketplace had emerged
Highlights
  • In February 2011, a new Tor hidden service [16], called “Silk Road,” opened its doors
  • Embolden by the anonymity properties Silk Road provided, sellers and buyers on Silk Road mostly traded in contraband and narcotics
  • The Silk Road operator famously declared in August 2013 in an interview with Forbes, that the “War on Drugs” had been won by Silk Road and its patrons [18]
  • We have a data collection gap, roughly corresponding to the time Silk Road was taken down. (We do not show volumes for Atlantis, which are negligible, in the order of 2,000–3,000/day.) Shortly after the Silk Road take-down we started measuring Black Market Reloaded, and realized that it has already made up for a vast portion of the volumes previously seen on Silk Road
  • Though, a massive scam on Silk Road 2.0 caused dramatic loss of user confidence, which is evidenced by the rapid decrease until April 2014, before it starts recovering
  • We internally confirmed that the independent estimations of total market volumes varied by less than 10% at any single point in time, and less than 5% on average, well within expected margin of errors for data indirectly estimated from potentially noisy sources.6
  • Benthall [7] reports that in September 2014, the administrator, talking to an undercover agent working on Silk Road 2’s staff, reports around 6M of monthly sales; and later amends this number to 8M. This corresponds to a daily sales volume of 200,000–250,000 which is very close to what we report in Figure 5 for Silk Road 2 at that given time
Methods
  • The authors' measurement methodology consists of 1) crawling online anonymous marketplaces, and 2) parsing them.
  • Table 1 lists all the anonymous marketplaces for which the authors have data.
  • The authors scraped 35 different marketplaces a total of 1,908 times yielding a dataset of 3.2 TB in size.
  • The sheer size of the data corpus the authors are considering, as well as other challenging factors led them to devise a custom web scraping framework built on top of Scrapy [3] and Tor [16], which the authors discuss first.
  • The authors highlight how the authors decide to parse marketplaces, before touching on validation techniques the authors use to ensure soundness of the analysis
Results
  • The authors present the results in Figure 5 where the authors show the total volume, per marketplace the authors study, over time.
  • The authors do not have sales data for Sheep Marketplace due to incomplete parses, but the authors do believe that the combination of both markets made up for the loss of Silk Road.
  • In November 2014, Operation Onymous [38] resulted in the take-down of Silk Road 2 and a number of less marketplaces
  • This did significantly affect total sales, but the authors immediately see a rebound by people going to Evolution and Agora.
Conclusion
  • A study of this kind brings up a number of important discussion points. The authors focus here on what the authors consider are the most salient ones: validation, ethics, and potential public policy take-aways. 5.1 Validation

    Scientific measurements should be amenable to validation.
  • Chat transcripts place weekly volumes at 475,000/week in late March 2012 for instance: this is consistent with the data previously reported [13] and which the authors use for documenting Silk Road 1.
  • Evidence GX250 contains a personal ledger whichEven though anonymous online marketplaces are a relatively recent development in the overall online crime ecosystem, the longitudinal measurements show that in the short four years since the development of the original Silk Road, total volumes have reached up to 700,000 daily and are generally stable around 300,000-500,000 a day, far exceeding what had been previously reported.
  • While the paper does not answer these questions, the authors believe that the data collection methodology the authors described, as well as some of the data the authors have collected, may enable further research in the field
Tables
  • Table1: Markets crawled. The table describes which markets were crawled, the time the measurements spanned, and the number of snapshots that were taken. ∗ denote market sites seized by the police, † voluntary shutdowns, and ‡ (suspected) fraudulent closures (owners absconding with escrow money)
Download tables as Excel
Related work
  • The past decade has seen a large number of detailed research efforts aiming at gathering actual measurements from various online criminal ecosystems in order to devise meaningful defenses; see, e.g., [13,14,22,26,27,28, 29,32,40,41]. Anderson et al [11] and Thomas et al [37] provide a very good overview of the field. Closest among these papers to our work, McCoy et al obtained detailed measurements of online pharmaceutical affiliates, showing that individual networks grossed between USD 12.8 million/year to USD 67.7 million/year. In comparison, the long-term rough average we see here is in the order of 150–180M/year for the entire online anonymous marketplace ecosystem. In other words, online marketplaces have seemingly surpassed more “traditional” ways of de-

    14 46 24th USENIX Security Symposium livering illicit narcotics. With respect to specific measurements of online anonymous marketplaces, the present paper builds up on our previous work [13]. Surprisingly few other efforts exist attempting to quantitatively characterize the economics of online anonymous marketplaces. Of note, Aldridge and Decary-Hetu [10] complement our original volume estimates by showing revised numbers of around 90M/year for Silk Road in 2013 right before its takedown. This is roughly in line with our own measurements, albeit slightly more conservative (Figure 5 shows about 300K/day for Silk Road in summer 2013.) More recent work by Dolliver [17] tries to assess the volumes on Silk Road 2.0. While she does not report volumes, her seller numbers are far smaller than ours, and we suspect her scrapes might have been incomplete. Looking at the problem from a different angle, Meiklejohn et al [31] provide a detailed analysis of transaction traceability in the Bitcoin network, and show which addresses are related to Silk Road, which in turn could be a useful way of assessing the total volumes of that marketplace. A follow up paper [30] shows that purported Bitcoin “anonymity” (i.e., unlinkability) is greatly overstated, even when using newer mixing primitives.
Funding
  • This research was partially supported by the National Science Foundation under ITR award CCF-0424422 (TRUST) and SaTC award CNS-1223762; and by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, Cyber Security Division (DHS S&T/CSD), the Government of Australia and SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific via contract number N66001-13C-0131
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