Agora, the largest drug dealing marketplace on the dark web, former home to Silk Road, has been closed down by its owners, fearful that the Tor browser can be exploited more easily than first thought. The site's administrators also said that "suspicious activity" had been detected, and that interested parties were keen to reveal the site's location and owners' identities.
Concerned that staying online would put its buyers, sellers and staff "in jeopardy", Agora has made the decision to take its website offline. Administrators say they "have a solution in the works" that will require big changes to the site's software. They say the changes will take time to implement, and as such the website will be taken offline "for a while, until we can develop a better solution. This is the best course of action for everyone involved."
Previously, exploiting vulnerabilities in Tor – the web browser used to access the dark web – required significant resources. But the website's recent research "shows that the amount of resources could be much lower than expected, and in our case we do believe we have interested parties who possess such resources."
Agora's owners and administrators are likely fearful of being caught by law enforcement as Ross Ulbricht, owner of the original Silk Road, was in October 2013 –and the alleged owner of Silk Road 2, Blake Benthall, a year later. Ulbricht is currently serving a life sentence in prison with no chance of parole.
Although Agora has not elaborated on the Tor vulnerabilities, the site could well be referring to a paper published in July 2015 by a group of researchers from Qatar University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They claimed a 'circuit fingerprinting attack' could be used to remove the anonymisation of Tor websites and correctly reveal the identity of users 98% of the time. More importantly for Agora, the researchers also claimed they can reveal the identity of Tor websites 88% of the time.
The Tor Project responded to these claims, saying how such work would require the control of a large number of Tor nodes, the computers used to bounce traffic around the web, anonymising Tor's users.
In a post on Reddit, Agora's management said they will do their best to clear all outstanding orders and have asked all users who have money in their accounts to withdraw it all as soon as possible. Agora, like most dark web marketplaces, uses the anonymous cryptocurrency bitcoin for all transactions. The website said there might be a delay in payouts during this time, but it promises any problems for users attempting to get their money out will be resolved.
In a note to vendors, Agora says it "strong advises" them "to abort any orders that haven't been sent out or processed... we cannot guarantee what will happen with the orders in resolution. As for the website generally, it said: "All of the market data will be kept intact and be available upon return, including all of the user history and profile data."
Law enforcement will see the closure – even if it is only temporary – as a step forward in the war on dark web marketplaces. But as we have seen before, when one site shuts down, another is always willing to fill the void, a venture as risky as it is lucrative.