Follow the Money: Analyzing Darknet Activity Using Cryptocurrency and the Bitcoin Blockchain


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Transactions on the darknet are notoriously difficult to examine. Prior criminological research has generally used web scraping and qualitative text analysis to examine illegal darknet markets. One disadvantage of this process is that individuals can lie. Fortunately for researchers, the currency used for transactions on the darknet, cryptocurrency, is designed to be tracked. In this article, we examine transactions from a former darknet marketplace, AlphaBay. Using the blockchain, we examine the interconnectedness of both legal and illegal cryptocurrencies. In addition, we provide a structured approach to quantitatively examine the Bitcoin blockchain ledger, offering both the tools and our own experiences for other researchers interested in such approaches. While cybersecurity, information technology, accounting, and other disciplines can examine the financial data itself, we believe that criminologists can provide additional benefits in pattern analysis and organizing the context and theory around the transactions. Our results show that cryptocurrency transactions are generally identifiable (90%) and involve likely illegal transactions, transactions that attempt to obfuscate other transactions, and legal transactions. We end with a discussion of newer cryptocurrencies and related technology and how they will likely shape future work.