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Is OpenBazaar a Dark Web Market?

OpenBazaar is a network for trading and transacting online that might be confused for a Dark Web marketplace. While OpenBazaar does share some similarities with Darknet markets, there are key differences that set it apart. Where both are concerned, security professionals ought to be paying attention. OpenBazaar blends the secrecy of Silk Road with the mainstream appeal of Ebay. It is much easier to use, both for sellers and store operators. Street drugs, counterfeit and stolen goods can all be sold on OpenBazaar and given the way OpenBazaar works, it is likely that they will be difficult to find unless you know where to look.

Dark Web marketplaces

The appeal of the Dark Web lies largely in the anonymity it provides. This is why a majority of Dark Web marketplaces cater to illicit commerce. These are centralized marketplaces controlled by an individual or small group for profit. They can only be accessed using a Tor browser and payments are generally made using Bitcoin, or other types of cryptocurrency.

Any reasonable person might wonder why they should trust an anonymous party on the Dark Web to honor their transaction. Herein lies the crux: they cannot be trusted. Exit scams are a popular way to cheat users within Dark Web markets. With exit scams, Darknet market are shut down before fulfilling transactions. Since the operator controls the payment and escrow process, Dark Web marketplace operators are able to walk away and wash their hands of everything but the profits.

At its essence, the Dark Web is not bad. Technology is neither good or evil. A seller who traditionally sells knitted hats on Etsy could technically establish their own Darknet marketplace. They could save themselves the Etsy seller fees and keep all the profits for themselves. This seller could accept cryptocurrency payments and only deal with customers who know about their Dark Web site. This increasingly hypothetical seller, however, has little incentive to do so. There is no reason for our purveyor of handmade hats to limit themselves in this way. The Surface Web is a far more appealing and lucrative place for them to do business. They have nothing to hide, and everything to gain from selling openly and freely online.

Which brings us to the folks who do use the Dark Web to transact online. These people do not market their products openly because it is illegal to do so. They require anonymity in their transactions because what they are selling is illegal. They accept the limits on the growth of their customer base because they know that trust is imperative to keep their marketplace open and safe from prosecution. While Dark Web marketplaces are not bad at their core, the people with real incentive to use them are people who know what they are doing is wrong and want to hide.

The rise of OpenBazaar

One weakness of Dark Web marketplaces is their dependence on an operator, or group of operators, who control the sites. Once identified, these persons can be tracked down and prosecuted. The development of decentralized marketplaces such as OpenBazaar generates new challenges that do not exist with Dark Web markets. With OpenBazaar, there is no marketplace operator for law enforcement to target. On the other hand, each individual user engaged in illicit commerce could become a target instead. Decentralized markets are also much harder to shut down.

Image Source: OpenBazaar

A project which began in April 2016, OpenBazaar has experienced considerable growth. Since the launch of OpenBazaar 2.0 in late 2017, the network has seen over 100k nodes created and 20k nodes with at least one listing. “Nodes” means the installation of the app and creation of a profile or store that can connect to others on the network and be discovered. It may not sound like much when you compare it to some online giants like Ebay, but OpenBazaar is still in its infancy.

The platform does not anonymize the user by default. Originally, the onus was entirely on the user to mask their identity if they desired. Now, since the release of OpenBazaar 2.0, users can opt to access the site using a Tor browser, which allows great anonymity. Payments can be made using Bitcoin, but you also have the option to pay using traditional formats.

Most of the items sold on OpenBazaar are simple consumer goods. On OpenBazaar, you can find items such as food, cigarettes, clothing and accessories. OpenBazaar is a neutral technology that can be used for many types of transactions. It was not developed to cater to any particular type of commerce, such as illicit and illegal goods. Like any technology, much like the Internet itself, the OpenBazaar network reflect society in general: some people will do bad things, most will not.

This all sounds innocuous at its surface but as you dive into how the platform works, it becomes clear how easy it is to use OpenBazaar for nefarious purposes. To locate products on OpenBazaar, you must select a search engine and each search engine will list different products. According to tests, when searching using the OB1 engine, no drugs were found. However, when switching to the Blocktooth engine, a number of cannabis products and other drug-related items were listed. By using different search providers or if you know the vendor’s URL, you may be able to access an even wider array of illicit goods. It’s impossible to know. Even OpenBazaar has no insight into what is being sold on their platform, and in what numbers.

In addition to the availability of street drugs on OpenBazaar, there is an even more insidious possibility. Counterfeit and stolen merchandise could find a home on OpenBazaar, providing sellers with a level of anonymity that parallels the Dark Web, but using a platform with enough mainstream appeal to increase visibility and reach on the Surface Web over time. A lucrative opportunity, no doubt, and a grave concern for corporate security professionals. Selling counterfeit or stolen goods is possible through OpenBazaar, and if there is such an opportunity there will be those who will want to exploit it.

While the Dark Web and OpenBazaar function in different ways, the outcomes for the seller are quite similar. On OpenBazaar, anyone can sell anything they want. They can mask their identity and hide their location. It is on the side of the user that the real benefits are clear, in that it is much more difficult to scam users in the way that is done on the Dark Web. This can only help the OpenBazaar platform as it establishes itself and evolves to become a viable alternative to the Dark Web. For security professionals, the problem of combating illicit trade continues to become more complex and the number of online locations to monitor more daunting.

Want better visibility into illicit trade on OpenBazaar and the Dark Web?

Media Sonar Online Investigation software helps security professionals gain visibility into OpenBazaar as well as Dark Web marketplaces. Search through over 80,000 sources relevant to security professionals and law enforcement. Our software allows investigators to trace activity to its source, to understand the full context of a security risk and discover those behind it.

Contact us to book a meeting to learn more about OpenBazaar and how we can help your security team conduct more effective investigations online.

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