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This Researcher Is Tallying All the Arrests From Dark Web Markets

He's at around 300 and counting—but that might be pretty low, all things considered.
Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

While using the dark web might seem like one of the more secure ways to buy or sell drugs, the space is not without its risks. Since the early days of the first Silk Road, we've seen arrests of vendors, buyers, and administrators of the underground markets. Now, someone has collected information about these arrests, collated it all, and released the results.

The database has been compiled by security researcher Gwern Branwen, who is also a moderator of the DarkNetMarkets subreddit. For years he has been monitoring media reports and digging through court documents in order to get a better picture of how risky using markets such as Silk Road really is. He has now brought the list up to date, and made the record of known dark web arrests available to the public.

"I wanted to understand the risk of arrest," he told me over Twitter. "That's half the cost-benefit equation, after all."

The database has various categories, such as whether the person arrested was a buyer, seller, market staff member, or an operator of the site. The market in question is also included, as well as the country and what product was involved, if any.

When Branwen launched the database earlier this week, the total number of arrests was just above 300, but that has already increased due to contributions of information from the dark web community. For example, someone might tell Branwen about an arrest that he missed, or one noted in media reports in a non-English language. "It's more like 312 now based on all the additional tips," Branwen told me.

"Operating a market looks pretty attractive at this point. Very few arrests compare to how many [markets] there have been."

The majority of people arrested due to dark web market-related activities appear to be buyers of products, rather than those who sell them. However, the number of people who buy products from these sites naturally outweighs those who sell items. "If the buyer:seller ratio is 100:1 and the true arrest ratio is 10:3, then buyers are safe," Branwen said.

The first Silk Road seems to be involved with the most known arrests, with over 130. That might be because it was the original dark web market.

Meanwhile, it looks like running a market yourself may not be that risky, all things considered.

"Operating a market looks pretty attractive at this point. Very few arrests compare to how many there have been," Branwen told me. According to him, there have been around 70 markets, and looking at his database, only four market operators have been arrested. Those are Ross Ulbricht, convicted of masterminding Silk Road; Blake Benthall, alleged to have worked on Silk Road 2; Tomáš Jiřikovský in relation to Sheep Marketplace; and the alleged operator of Hyrda marketplace, whose name is unknown.

"I think for site operators I *probably* have 90-100% of their arrests," Branwen continued.

There are caveats to this research, however. Arrests might never become public for legal reasons, media coverage might be inaccurate, or those arrested may attempt to distance themselves from the dark web, so some crimes may not explicitly be linked to the markets in reports.

Instead of a conclusive number of arrests, this database should be seen as the "lower-limit", Branwen told me.

Nevertheless, considering hundreds of thousands of people have used these dark web markets, and taking into account some high profile operations that have attempted to knock them out, such as the much-touted joint law enforcement project Operation Onymous at the end of 2014, just over 300 arrests seems fairly low.