The last two years have profoundly shaped the future of the dark web.
From the fall of some of the biggest markets to the creation of other promising ones, and without forgetting the integration of new and multiple cryptocurrencies in the marketplaces, all these have happened in a span of about 24 months.
The question is how things will differ in 2019, and will it be any different from the previous years?
Well, we should definitely expect some changes such as innovations in one area or the other. You never really know ahead of time when these changes will be made; it just happens.
However, some things remain predictable and that includes how the avenue is used and also how newer innovations tend to lead to a decline of previously used ones.
Here, we will analyze some of the things to expect in 2019.
Expanded Base of Darknet Users
Without a doubt, as more people and entities desire to seek more privacy for one reason or the other, the Tor Browser provides them with the chance to do so—especially in areas with high-level censorship.
Over the years, the Tor Project has successfully continued to enable its users to attain internet freedom by coming up with new ways of connecting users across the internet.
For example, in a 2016 blog post, the Tor Project detailed how they have successfully developed methods such as Pluggable Transports (PTs) which enables one to connect to the anonymous network and bypass censorship because governments have in some instances come up with means of blocking users from accessing Tor because of the privacy it offers.
To date, Tor continues its mission of providing tools for people to bypass censorship—now expanding its access to the mobile user base.
In 2018, they launched the alpha version of the Tor browser for Android users after an analysis showed that a majority of those who access the internet do so from their smartphones.
In 2019, anytime from now, we should expect the team behind Tor to release the stable version of the Android browser, which was scheduled for debut early this year.
The move will, in turn, be welcomed by the hundreds of millions of users across the world aspiring to achieve internet privacy from the comfort and convenience of their mobile phones.
Rise and Fall of Niche Markets
As expected, this is one thing that has always been happening ever since the early days of the infamous Silk Road Market that was shut down by the FBI in 2013.
Authorities across the globe have been battling with the ever-rising number of hidden markets and forums operating on the dark web.
And despite some success on their part, it doesn’t seem as though this underground industry will go down any time soon.
In our interview with the Empire Market admin last spring, just after the launch of the market, he pointed out that there was possibility that one of the top markets would fall in six months’ time.
Well, apparently none of the top five markets went down through a seizure, hack or exit scam.
However, authorities have been able to bust smaller markets and forums operating in specific countries or specializing in specific products.
One of the markets under this category that fell in 2018 and was operated in a specific country is Black Hand, which was brought down by the French authorities in June.
Then we have another one in South Korea owned by a man only identified as Shin.
Both Black Hand and the South Korean site have something in common, and that is they are the first of their kind in their respective countries.
Then, the other market that specialized in specific operation was Infraud, which was well-covered in news outlets across the globe.
Infraud was shut down by international authorities last February, leading to the arrest of more than 36 members.
Months after the fall of the forum, authorities in London managed to arrest two individuals for the alleged roles in operating the forum.
This was then followed by a move by the U.S. security officials to extradite the two London men.
Emergence of New Markets
Black Hand and Infraud are some of the notable forums that went down in 2018.
But, on the other hand, there are several other markets that came up during this time—apart from Empire (mentioned above), another market known as Nightmare, launched back in October, and we had the chance to get an exclusive interview with the admin a few months after the site’s launch.
For 2019, we are likely to see the emergence of other markets here and there, but because the level of competition is high, some will probably not see the light of the day whereas others will.
It all depends on the marketing strategies put in place by the owner.
Even at the moment there are some already developed and fully functional sites which are struggling to survive.
Then also, it’s impossible to determine when and if a site will go down because no one apart from the markets’ internal teams are wholly aware of the technical infrastructures and security measures put in place.
The two factors are significant determinants for the survival of a market; no wonder the reason why a site like Dream Market, the longest service darknet market, has been in operation for quite some time despite the fact that one of its forum moderators, Gal Vallerius popularly known as “OxyMonster,” was arrested by the U.S. authorities while attending a beard competition.
Vallerius was then later sentenced to 20 years in prison after the prosecutors said he had not shared enough inside information to get a reduced sentence.
Perhaps, the Dream Market team has invested heavily in their infrastructure and security systems and this reason why it is still in operation even though one of its administrators is behind bars.
More Arrests and Extradition Cases Based on Previous Operations
This is something that will be happening throughout the year, as was the case in 2018 and the previous years.
The dark web has become an avenue for all sorts of illegal activities, attracting thousands of users on a daily basis.
This particular reason has drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies in most corners of the globe to find new means to combat darknet-related crime.
Based on the type of operation, the time may vary from just a few days to weeks, months and years.
The level of sophistication is what determines this factor because authorities need time to trace and gather sufficient evidence.
In 2018 for example, a Vancouver man going by the name James Ellingson was arrested for his alleged association with Silk Road Market more than five years after the fall of the site.
It is something that took years and was discovered as authorities were reviewing some investigations about Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road.
Ellingson’s case is more or less similar to that of the two aforementioned London men who were caught up by security personnel involved in the investigations of Infraud group. Perhaps the main difference is the time taken to carry out the arrest.
In this regard, we point out that the efficiency of law enforcement personnel is crucial when undertaking some investigations.
For instance, Ellingson would have been linked to Ulbricht many years back, but instead, it happened some years after the fall of Silk Road as investigators started reviewing the case again.
Now in 2019, there are likely to be arrests of individuals who were previously associated in one way or the other with markets that are no longer in existence most likely because of a seizure.
Just as it was revealed by a Dutch law enforcement officer in charge of the darknet division Nan van de Coevering, to date they still see the results of Operation Bayonet which led to the fall of Hansa Market in mid-2017.
It should also be noted here that there are likely to be several arrests of vendors and buyers who have been actively involved with both current markets and past markets such as AlphaBay, which was shut down by authorities in July 2017.
Cryptocurrency is the only mode of payment in darknet markets, and because of that, 2019 will definitely have something new for the community since each market is trying to see what best suits them in terms of expanding to new cryptocurrencies.
Among the things that happened in 2018 is an increased rate at which markets integrated other payment options in their systems, such as the creation of the first-ever Tor-based Monero wallet, darknet markets embracing ICOs with Tochka Market paving the way and, last but not least, a decline in the number of Bitcoin users.
Even though there was a slight decline in the number of Bitcoin users, the asset has remained the predominant option within the community followed by the like of altcoins like Monero, Bitcoin Cash, and the rest.
In 2019 we should project the statistics to change with more individuals expected to ditch Bitcoin and shift to privacy coins.
This is attributed to the fact that third parties such as cybersecurity firms and even law enforcement personnel have successfully managed to trace Bitcoin to their users several times before.
Because of that, 2018 has been the year where authorities across the world have realized that indeed privacy coins are a threat; and they are busy formulating ways on how to deal with this.
The U.S., in particular, has seen renewed efforts to govern the use of privacy coins. In 2018 for example, it started after a leaked memo revealed that the National Security Agency and the U.S. Army want to track Monero users.
There have been other consecutive attempts within the U.S. soil that involved multiple federal agencies and lawmakers to fight the use of privacy coins, and in one notable occasion, the U.S. Secret service reached out to Congress to regulate the industry because criminals are beginning to develop an eye for more secure coins.
Then in the latest instance that involved a federal agency in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security has also taken an interest in tracking Monero and Zcash users.
With this in mind, we are likely to see more attempts not just by the U.S. alone but also by other countries such as Australia, Japan, China, South Korea and other developed countries where cryptocurrencies have a solid base and have been used for quite some time.
In the coming years, the results will determine if developing states will be looking upon these countries that have had first-hand experience as a case study so as to implement previously adopted laws in their nations.
More Hacks & Data Dumps
It is certain that the dark web has been a significant contributor to the number of hacking activities that have happened across the globe because a large percentage of these hackers sell their services on hidden forums.
From stolen financial information to logins of emails accounts, the dark web continues to offer such sensitive information that if placed in the wrong hands, may lead to immense losses.
In 2019, we are likely to see more and more data being disposed on the dark web after a major hack leading to a rise in the sale of such information.
For instance, some notable 2018 hacks resulted in the personal data of millions of people being disposed on the dark web, some of which are still available to date.
For those that did adhere to security measures and are changing their passwords, they are less likely to fall victim to more losses in 2019.
But despite this, there are some notable instances where the number of hackers offering a particular service has declined on the Tor markets.
One good example is zero-day sellers who have drastically reduced.
Based on the statistics, zero-days may no longer be traded on Tor markets in the coming years.