Beginning next month, malicious actors using the dark web marketplace AlphaBay will be able to buy and sell their goods using the growing cryptocurrency platform Ethereum. Ethereum will become the third payment option available on the market, joining the longstanding cryptocurrency king bitcoin as well as the privacy-focused Monero, which was adopted by AlphaBay last September.
The announcement is good news for fans of Ethereum, whose Ether cryptocurrency has seen a continued surge of growth in 2017 and is the second most popular cryptocurrency after bitcoin.
Bitcoin is by far the most well-known cryptocurrency, and it has been widely adopted by malicious actors and dark web markets as a convenient and semi-anonymous form of digital payment. In fact, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, dark web markets like AlphaBay, and extortion payments like ransomware are interconnected in that the growth of one has helped spur the growth of the others.
However, bitcoin is currently experiencing growing pains, and Ethereum has emerged over the past year as its main rival. Ethereum’s proponents claim that is it is a more versatile and scalable cryptocurrency. In fact, the idea of Ethereum goes beyond just currency, which is why it and other blockchain companies have been described as bitcoin 2.0. If bitcoin was about creating a decentralized payment system, Ethereum is about using that same concept to radically re-architect everything on the web — as Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin describes it.
Fortune magazine explained in a September 2016 profile:
Ethereum’s power lies in its ability to automate complex relationships encoded in so-called smart contracts. The contracts function like software programs that encapsulate business logic — rules about money transfers, equity stake transfers, and other types of binding obligations — based on predetermined conditions. Ethereum also has a built-in programming language, called Solidity, which lets anyone build apps easily on top of it.
There’s ongoing debate over just how secure other cryptocurrencies are compared to bitcoin. For example, in June 2016 a hacker was able to exploit a flaw in the smart contract used by The DAO, a crowdsourced venture capital platform based on the Ethereum blockchain, in order to steal more than $50 million worth of Ether.
A controversial solution to address the theft was proposed, known as a “hard fork.” Cryptocurrencies use the concept of a blockchain, which is essentially a decentralized and agreed upon ledger of all the transactions that have occurred. The hard fork would change the agreed upon rules and create a new path forward for the currency — one that would invalidate the theft. However, some Ethereum users argued that the idea of hard fork went against the very principles of a decentralized network that was designed to combat a single authority. Those that eventually rejected the fork are now on a parallel version of the blockchain, Ethereum Classic, while the rest of the community moves forward on the other fork as Ethereum.
Despite the troubles, Ethereum continues to thrive. The concept of disrupting existing business models with decentralized blockchains has gained Ethereum interest not just from dark web markets, but from legitimate companies. In February it was announced that 30 organizations — including JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and Intel — would team up under the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance to enhance the privacy, security, and scalability of the Ethereum blockchain.
Ethereum’s Value: Past 90 Days
All of that news has helped to more than quadruple the market cap of Ethereum in 2017, from less a billion in January 2017 to around $4 billion on April 6.
It’s still nearly a month before the option goes live, so it is unclear how many security-obsessed cybercriminals on the dark web will actually use the payment option — or if they will stick with bitcoin. Nevertheless, being adopted by AlphaBay, which is by far the most popular dark web market according to SurfWatch Labs’ data, could potentially be a huge boost for Ethereum.