Some Brazen Drug Marketplaces Are Operating on the Normal Web
No Tor required.
Screenshot: listings on the "Chemical Love" site
In their relatively short history, dark web drug markets have gone from a niche corner of the internet to a multi-million-dollar-a-year industry. But some sites have moved in a surprising direction: onto the normal web.
In June, the New York Times profiled sites from China that were shipping illegal narcotics en masse. Prolific German dealer "Shiny Flakes" also ran a site in plain view for six months before opening a dark web shop, until he was arrested in February this year.
Two other similar sites are now up and running. "Chemical Love," a German language site, is accessible without any sort of anonymization technology. The slick homepage appears to list for sale all the drugs you might expect, including MDMA, methamphetamine, and cocaine. As with dark web sites, these are listed for payment in Bitcoin. The owners have even made a video ad on YouTube.
Feedback on a German forum suggests that the site is legit, with several apparently happy customers posting positive reviews going back to May of this year.
Another site is called Forbidden Market. Its landing page includes a .onion dark web address, accessible only by using the Tor browser, but offers another "clearnet" link that can be accessed through a regular browser.
"If you went up to a random person on the street that liked drugs, and asked them to buy from Silk Road, do you think they would spend the time researching Tor, finding the .onion, then logging in, versus someone just giving them a URL?" "Mr. Evil," the administrator of Forbidden Market, told Motherboard in an encrypted chat.
"They put it in their phone, and they're like 'wow, this actually exists,' and there's a link where I can buy Bitcoin in cash locally." The Forbidden Market landing page has a link to Localbitcoins.com, a popular site where people can buy Bitcoin for cash, or via anonymous bank deposits.
The normal web link for the Forbidden Market directs to a proxy server, which then connects to the marketplace without using the Tor browser. It works in a similar way to Tor2Web, a system for accessing hidden services without Tor, Mr. Evil said.
"The true location of the [market] server is still hidden but clearnet is available," the admin explained.
Even if Forbidden Market's servers are hidden, cautious users may be worried about their own security. Usually, any normal website you visit has the ability to log your IP address. Mr. Evil said, however, that the proxy site has "logs turned off."
There's also the obvious possibility that operating on the normal web, either with a proxy or as a full-blown shop, could present a higher risk to site administrators. Some quick digital digging around the Forbidden Market proxy revealed that the email used to register it is also behind just over a dozen other sites. An address and phone number for whoever registered Forbidden Market is also available, although they appear to be bogus: the Russian postcode doesn't exist according to Google Maps, and the phone number is not responsive.
"We're going to deny access to Russian users to the site, to avoid heat from the local law enforcement," Mr. Evil continued, which further suggests that the site may be local to Russia. He also said that Chinese users would not be able to use the site, and vendors would be asked not to send products to those two countries.
It's unclear whether these sites will last. But it shows that some administrators aren't content to make do with the current state of the market, which, although having grown significantly, still makes up a tiny percentage of global drug transactions.
Regardless, these admins are "Putting it out there even more," Mr. Evil said.