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Historical Darknet Markets: Agora

Tucked in the annals of dark web history between the original Silk Road and Wall Street Market, Agora is a rare example of a darknet market done right. It opened for business on Dec. 3, 2013, immediately following the closure of two of the biggest darknet markets at the time: Sheep Marketplace (closed Dec 1st) and Black Market Reloaded (closed Dec 2nd). Though not without the drama and periods of turmoil expected in the life of any darknet market, Agora was a relatively smooth and upstanding operation, and the biggest market in operation for much of its existence. It closed in a graceful exit on Sept. 6, 2015.

Agora was built with improving the failures of Silk Road in mind, especially as applied to OpSec for its users and admins. Almost nothing is known about Agora’s architects or administration, other than they understood the importance of good business in building reputations in the industry of anonymous online markets. They also proved to be good stewards of funds, first rising to the rank of top darknet market after Silk Road 2 suffered a hack which lost 40% of user funds, and then again the following year after the exit scam of Evolution, formerly the biggest market at the time.

Some of Agora’s contemporaries and biggest competitors included Silk Road 2, Dream Market, Evolution, Outlaw Market, and Nucleus. With the exception of Dream, which lasted much longer than any other market, Agora did more business than any of its peers: an estimated $220.7 million across 630,000 transactions over the course of its lifetime. This equates to an average of $10.5 million in sales each month, which makes it a hugely successful darknet market operation by any standard.

To put things in perspective, the original AlphaBay – largely considered to be the most successful darknet market after Hydra – performed an average of $11 million in sales per month throughout its existence, which beats Agora by only $500,000 more per month. Agora managed to incur all its success using a custom codebase and design which was neither intuitive or very user-friendly, but what it lacked in aesthetics it made up for in trustworthiness and competency.

Five months into operation, the market had around 7,400 listings, slightly more than its closest competitor, Silk Road 2. By Sept. 2014 – less than a year into existence – it had exceeded the size and volume of the original Silk Road, featuring over 16,000 listings. When the decision to close shop came around, Agora did it the right way, giving their users a two-week advance notice and letting them withdraw their funds from the market accordingly.

Bitcoin Fog

In its early days, Agora was advertised on Bitcoin Fog, a Bitcoin mixing service, and the two entities later established a partnership that featured Bitcoin Fog as the official mixer of Agora. Bitcoin Fog also worked closely with other darknet markets, including Silk Road, SR2, Evolution, and AlphaBay. Operating through the Tor network only, the mixer lasted for about nine and a half years before its owner, Roman Sterlingov, was arrested while traveling to the US. Apparently, investigators there had been tracking his online actions for a number of years and had been waiting for him to visit the country.

A Russian and Swedish citizen, Sterlingov first announced his mixing service on Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin Forum in October 2011 under the pseudonym Akemashite Omedetou. As the site was known to have received coins from darknet market drug deals and various hackers, it was closely monitored by authorities, who managed to connect Sterlingov to the site through bitcoins he sent to it through a MtGOX account under his real name. According to court documents, Sterlingov sent “a series of small value transactions” to Bitcoin Fog in October 2011 in order to “beta-test (the) new software” prior to its launch, which ended up leading to his identification and capture.

In all, Bitcoin Fog is thought to have mixed around 1.2 million bitcoins, or $335.8 million based on the price of BTC at the time the coins were sent through the service. Sterlingov is estimated to have made around $8 million by charging a 2% fee for each transaction (plus tips and donations) — many of such transactions went to or came from Agora. In reference to Agora, prosecutors allege Sterlingov posted the following message on Bitcoin Fog in anticipation of the market’s launch:

The marketplace is operated by associates of ours in whom we have complete trust both in terms of not being a honeypot (if they were, we would be in jail).”

Though Bitcoin Fog was often accused of theft or loss, it lasted for as long as it did because it was in actuality an honest operation (at least for the most part), designed and operated by one of the first individuals to recognize the importance of breaking blockchain links when transacting BTC on darknet markets.

The Random Darknet Shopper

The project of Swiss artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, The Random Darknet Shopper was a “live mail art piece” that was comprised of an online shopping bot which randomly purchased items from Agora that were listed for $100 in BTC or below. In its first run, the bot purchased 12 different items from the marketplace between Oct. 2014 and Jan. 2015, including a pair of Nike trainers, a baseball cap with a hidden camera, a fake Sprite can used to store drug stashes, a fake Louis Vuitton handbag, and 10 real Ecstasy pills.

The randomly-purchased pills, advertised as containing 120 mg of pure Ecstasy, were later tested and found to contain 90 mg of MDMA, and subsequently destroyed by law enforcement. They were for a brief while displayed as part in an exhibit as part of the art installation before being confiscated. When asked about the legality of the purchase, artist Smoljo replied, “We are the legal owner of the drugs – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code,” in an interview with The Guardian in Dec. 2014. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free,” he added.

View from the exhibit gallery featuring items purchased from Agora. Source: !MEDIENGRUPPE BITNIK

All 12 purchases made by the bot arrived more-or-less as described, with the exception of one handbag, for which the artists were refunded their BTC. This led the artists to describe Agora’s service level as “impressive.” After Agora closed in Sept. 2015, the bot migrated to AlphaBay where it continued to make purchases through Feb. 2016. Pictures of most of the items purchased from the two markets and their packaging can be found on the art project’s home page. Regarding the question of why the art piece was created, co-artist Weisskopf had the following response.

The arts should be able to mirror something that is happening in contemporary society in a contemporary way… We really want to provide new spaces to think about the goods traded on these markets. Why are they traded? How do we as a society deal with these spaces?”

Evolution Exit Scams

Agora was overshadowed through much of its lifespan by Evolution, a flashier market that benefitted from better advertising and a more proactive community. It was founded in January 2014 by Verto, a shadowy individual behind the popular Tor Carding Forum. Unlike Agora, which featured a custom codebase that rendered the market’s design a bit clunky in places, Evolution was coded using Laravel, an open-source PHP framework which provided for a more flexible structure and elegant interface. This made market navigation smooth and intuitive, lending to its popularity among customers early on.

Outside of its design, Evolution was otherwise markedly similar to Agora, featuring a wide array of listings for drugs, weapons, and fraud-related items, while still banning the sales the usual stuff related to illicit pornography, Ponzi scams and assassination-type services. Evolution had a thriving community on Reddit where members talked freely of their experiences with vendors and the market itself, helping to create a buzz on the clearnet around it. Also to Evolution’s benefit was the fact that it loaded rather well on mobile devices, earning it a reputation as one of the first “mobile-friendly” darknet markets.

Great site design, consistent uptime and fantastic community building proved to be non-indicators of the integrity of a market, however, as these factors are not necessarily reflective of the intentions of a market’s admin. On Mar. 18, 2015, Evolution went down with no warning or apparent reason. On the same day, the market’s subreddit was made private, inaccessible to all, which forced market goers to come to the unpleasant realization that they had just been exit scammed. Verto had disappeared, taking an estimated $12 million in BTC trapped in escrow and user account balances along with him.

The six months following Evolution’s exit was a time of great instability on the remaining darknet markets, which suffered from ever increasing downtime during which they were inaccessible. Some of this downtime was driven by admins trying to improve security measures on their own markets, and some was due to “denial of service” attacks. These attacks were usually designed to disrupt market operations for the sake of either extorting money from moderators or enticing customers to join rival marketplaces. Agora was not spared from the wrath of such attackers.

Weapon Sales Banned

One of the few negative distinguishing features of Agora is the fact that more publicly-known arrests of weapons dealers stem from their activity on that market than any other darknet market. Sales of lethal weapons on darknet markets had been around since as early as the first Silk Road, though never highly popular or considered a good idea by most vendors. Nevertheless, several gun and ammunition sales did take place on Agora during the first year and a half of its existence, resulting in the arrest of dozens of sellers and buyers in several different countries.

In one of the most blatant stories of OpSec violation in dark web arms sales, 48-year-old American Michael Focia was arrested after undercover agents purchased a gun with his fingerprints on it in October 2014, from an Agora vendor going by the name RTBArms. Focia was already suspected of having a .40 caliber handgun to undercover officers as a vendor at Black Market Reloaded the previous year. In all, Focia was found to have sold at least 32 guns, shipping them as far away as Australia.

Imported weapon allegedly mailed by Agora vendor ‘weaponsguy’. Source: Australian Federal Police

Another interesting story of an Agora-based arms dealer is that of weaponsguy, who is believed to have been a US-based vendor who had his account secretly taken over by law enforcement, which then used it to make undercover sales to unsuspecting buyers. It is thought that around 19 buyer arrests were made by law enforcement in 4 countries which received guns shipped from weaponsguy.

The attention Agora was getting from the media regarding the recent string of weapons buyer arrests proved to be too much, and simply not worth the trouble for collecting commissions from a relatively niche category of sales. On July 15, 2015, the Agora admins posted the following message on an information page titled noweapons:

Following our mission we wish such objects would be available for purchase, but the current reality of it is that the format of a market like ours does not constitute a good way to do it. Shipping weapons is hard, they are expensive and stimulate both scamming by dishonest vendors and honeypot listings by agencies looking to find buyers who might wish to obtain such weapons illegally from us. This has been reflected for a long time in both the volume and the success rates of our listings in the weapons section.

At this point continuing to list weapons would do more harm than good for our users.”

Agora Closes

In late August 2015, Agora suspended trading, asking all market participants to remove their bitcoin. At first, market admins cited security concerns involving a potential Tor vulnerability, fearing a risk of the deanonymization of their server locations. Although the vulnerability was only a theoretical problem at that point, an assessment was made that significant software changes were required if the market were to continue operations. Admins later provided additional information by posting a signed message detailing the reasons behind their decision to take the market offline.

The remainder of the message included the following excerpt, which suggests that Agora planned to resume operations in the future, though this ultimately proved not to be the case:

At this point, while we don’t have a solution ready it would be unsafe to keep our users using the service, since they would be in jeopardy. Thus, and to our great sadness we have take the market offline for a while, until we can develop a better solution. This is the best course of action for everyone involved.

In the mean time (sic) we shall do our best to clear all outstanding orders and we ask all of you users who have money on their accounts, withdraw them as soon as possible, because we don’t want to be responsible for it during the time when the market will be offline.”

Agora made good on their word to let users withdraw their funds and took the market offline on Sept. 6, 2015. Though the admin did post a new PGP key in their last message to replace their current one, which was expiring that November, they never used it to sign any messages, suggesting they had gone into retirement — at least under that particular identity. It is therefore unknown if the Agora admins ever continued their profession under the name of any other market.

Three competing markets benefitted immensely from the closure of Agora – taking in refugees looking to continue business elsewhere – which included Nucleus, Abraxas, and the most famous market of all, AlphaBay. Though bigger darknet markets came and went in the years that followed, not many (if any) of them matched the competency, professionality and dignity displayed by Agora, which is still remembered fondly by much of the community who was around at the time.

Timeline of Agora and Related Events

Oct 2, 2013 – Silk Road goes offline

Dec 2, 2013 – Black Market Reloaded hacked, goes offline

Dec 3, 2013 – Agora opens for business

Jan 14, 2014 – Evolution opens for business

May 2014 – Agora exceeds size of original Silk Road with over 16,000 listings

Nov 5-6, 2014 – Operation Onymous shuts down Silk Road 2, Cloud 9, and Hydra

Nov-Dec 2014 – Agora membership jumps 20%

Mar 18, 2015 – Evolution exit scams, Agora becomes #1 market

Jul 2015 – Agora sales peak at $25 million

Jul 15, 2015 – Agora bans sale of lethal weapons

Aug 2015 – Citing security concerns, Agora suspends trading, asks users to withdraw funds

Sep 6, 2015 – Agora closes

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