James Stanley

I tried to buy a thing off a dark net market, and the FBI stole my money

Tue 25 July 2017

I'm interested in online privacy and freedom, and I've wanted to make a purchase on a dark net market for quite a while. On the 26th of June I took the plunge. I'd heard AlphaBay was a popular market so (for the full experience) I loaded up Tails Linux in a virtual machine and navigated to the AlphaBay site.

AlphaBay Review

The site was quite lame. I'm amazed it was so popular. It seemed to be a very basic CMS that had some marketplace functionality shoe-horned in. No problem though.

I spent some time searching around for something that didn't seem too illegal. At first I was tempted by some gold bars that were available, but they seemed awfully cheap. I eventually realised they were selling fake gold bars! Presumably the scam is that people buy them on purpose, and then pass them off as legitimate gold bars, and pocket the difference.

Almost everything on the site is illegal, as you might expect, but I eventually found some "physical Bitcoins" on offer, and I ordered one for about £14. I'm quite sure it didn't actually have any Bitcoin loaded on it, it's probably just a pretty-looking coin, but that's fine. It should be an interesting experience nonetheless.

The AlphaBay user experience around payments is really bad. Instead of simply paying for your order, you need to deposit money into your AlphaBay account, except it doesn't tell you exactly how much to deposit. And since items are priced in USD and the exchange rate constantly changes, your exact-amount deposit might not be enough by the time you are actually able to purchase the item. So I ended up paying quite a bit over the actual amount.

The site didn't seem to have any way to display incoming unconfirmed payments, which made me a little nervous that my payment was never going to show up. (I don't understand why people do this: if you have the capability to process Bitcoin payments, you have the capability to detect unconfirmed Bitcoin payments, so why not just display them and put your users' minds at ease? It just smacks of amateur-hour). But the payment eventually showed up.

There is an order queuing feature that is supposed to automatically place the order as soon as your Bitcoin payment gets confirmed, but it did not work. I had to place the order again, manually, and cancel the queued order.

AlphaBay Takedown

This post was originally just going to be a review of AlphaBay, after my physical Bitcoins arrived. But they never arrived.

On the 4th of July, AlphaBay was shut down by an international effort led by the FBI, the US DEA, and the Dutch National Police.

Ethics

Everybody selling on AlphaBay was doing so because they voluntarily decided to, and everybody buying on AlphaBay was doing so because they voluntarily decided to. Nobody was being forced to use the site. And while it is obviously illegal to facilitate the trade of illegal drugs, I don't think it's unethical to do so, and I can't otherwise see anything at all unethical about the operation of the site. Anybody who doesn't want to use the site is free to avoid using it.

Even if you think it is unethical to do illegal things, not everything on the site was illegal (e.g. physical Bitcoins). And even some of the things that are illegal in some jurisdictions are not illegal in all jurisdictions (e.g. marijuana). Is it unethical to do legal things on the same website as other people are doing illegal things? I don't think so.

Not all of the AlphaBay usage was illegal, and not all of the AlphaBay usage was unethical. There was a non-zero amount of perfectly legal and ethical trading going on (e.g. me trying to buy some physical Bitcoins). And there's certainly a very compelling case that none of the AlphaBay usage was unethical, because everybody trading there was doing so voluntarily.

The only involuntary transaction that any AlphaBay users were involved in was the theft of their Bitcoins by the FBI.

So I ask: who has acted unethically here? Is it the people running a marketplace where anybody can trade anything with anybody else, or is it the people shutting down the marketplace and stealing innocent people's money?

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