Over the last year, Reddit’s “dark net markets” discussion forum has grown into one of the central fixtures of the online drug scene. At any given moment, hundreds of redditors are browsing reddit.com/r/darknetmarkets, many brazenly discussing anonymous online sales on the open internet.
Now the feds have noticed. And they’re telling Reddit to cough up a few of those users’ real-world identities.
Earlier this month, a Baltimore Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent sent a subpoena to Reddit demanding that the site turn over a collection of personal data about five users of the r/darknetmarkets forum. The subpoena appears to be the first hint of a federal investigation of the recently defunct massive online market known as Evolution, which sold drugs, weapons, and stolen financial details. All five targets of the subpoena were involved, to varying degrees, in the Reddit discussion of that black market’s abrupt disappearance two weeks ago, in which two top administrators apparently absconded with millions of dollars worth of bitcoin belonging to Evolution’s buyers and sellers.
According to a copy of the subpoena shared with WIRED by one of the forum’s moderators who was named in the document, the DHS seeks information that includes the names, IP addresses, dates and times of site visits as well as other data that Reddit likely doesn’t possess, including the users’ phone numbers and financial data. (Reddit doesn’t even require an email address to sign up.)
The subpoena’s five targets are NSWGreat, a user who had claimed to be an Evolution staffer; three other users named z-l, Deepthroat and Evosmith who boasted on Reddit that they were tracking Evolution’s administrators or identifying details about them; and Gwern Branwen, a well-known security researcher, writer and moderator of the darknetmarkets forum. It’s Branwen who has now publicly revealed the subpoena’s existence to WIRED. He says the DHS’s interest in him may be in part because Z-l had recently publicly promised to send proof of findings about Evolution’s administrators to him, though Branwen says he never received any such information.
Branwen says he sees z-l, Deepthroat, Evosmith and himself as likely red herrings for law enforcement, but that NSWGreat might be an actually important target of the government’s investigation into Evolution. The apparently Australian NSWGreat went so far as to host an “ask me anything” session on Reddit as an internet drug trafficker and public relations staffer for Evolution’s black market. “Given the date and the affected accounts, it doesn’t take Holmes to deduce the reason for this subpoena,” writes Gwern in a statement he sent to WIRED. “Just one naked connection revealing [NSWGreat’s] home IP would be enough, and if he’s like past market employees, a raid will turn up all the damning evidence one could hope for.”
Branwen adds that he himself has never sold illegal products on a dark web market or worked for any such site. He’s nonetheless troubled by DHS’s probe into his personal data. “How can I continue as a [Reddit] moderator,” he writes, “knowing that all my non-[encrypted] communications have been laid bare, there may be followup subpoenas for my Gmail account, and I may be under further investigation myself?”
The DHS didn’t respond to WIRED’s request for comment, but it’s no surprise that Evolution has become the target of a federal investigation. The site, which was online for just over a year, was by some measures the largest-ever drug market on the dark web, with 34,000 total drug listings at its peak. A week before the site’s disappearance, German police arrested the leaders of one drug ring that operated on the site and seized 700 pounds of narcotics from that single bust alone. The two pseudonymous administrators of Evolution, Verto and Kimble, are believed to have taken as much as $12 million from the site’s users at the time of its shutdown, after a year of collecting commissions on every sale.