Recent Silk Road arrests demonstrate that drug dealers and users have gone beyond emails, instant messaging and mobile devices to adopt an underground online marketplace model in what has been called the “Dark Web.”
But the use of the “Dark Web” has not been without some major road bumps for those looking to get high via a cyber-connection.
Thieves apparently walked away with large sums of bitcoins from both Sheep Marketplace ($6 million) and Silk Road 2.0 ( $2.7 million).
Those road bumps have involved underground markets originating on Tor, the network developed with U.S. Navy funding which allows users to surf the Internet anonymously. The sites can only be located while one is using Tor and has a domain ending in .onion.
The National Security Agency (NSA) considers Tor … “[s]till the King of high secure, low latency Internet anonymity” and that “[t]here are no contenders for the throne in waiting.”
The bumps have not derailed the Tor drug market.
A recent story by Graham Templeton reported that Silk Road 2.0 has about 13,648 drug listings. Templeton notes it is by far the largest dark market. However, he adds it only accounts for about 41 percent of all listings, with other big players being Agora and Pandora Openmarket.
Templeton observed that one reason for the growth, may in fact be the result of the dramatic Silk Road arrests made in 2013.
Many would think that publicizing successful online investigations into the Dark Web would have a deterrent effect. However, Templeton believes it may have actually informed the public about Tor and let folks know they could get all kinds of illegal drugs online.
From a marketing point of view this follows what Brendan Behan once observed: “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”
I think Templeton hits on the most likely scenario for addressing online drugs sales. As he put it, “The Deep Web's true strength is not in encryption or anonymity, but in confidence. The FBI needs to imbue this community not with fear of prison, but with fear of their friends.”
Notwithstanding Tor’s reputation, it is not the only Dark Web player.
There is another underground network that may be more troublesome for law enforcement, called Invisible Internet Project (I2P). Tor gives users the ability to anonymous access to the Internet, but I2P is an anonymous network within the Internet.
I2P sites have a domain ending with i2p.
One I2P site called “The Marketplace (TMP), is built on the idea that no one can be trusted.
TMP”uses a complex “Bitcoin escrow” process, whereby no Bitcoin is actually held by one party until a transaction is confirmed on both ends.”
I2P also forces users to employ PGP encryption at the time of registration. Security and anonymity are what it is about. Causing “fear of their friends” would appear to be tough in this kind of security environment.
Of course, they said the same thing about Tor. Yet we still have drug busts.
The real problem with I2P is that is not for the technically unsophisticated. There are a lot of hoops that users need to go through. And folks want to get drugs without too much work.
Clearly, demand is fueling the online drug market. A recent study published in the journal Addiction, found that 18 percent of American drug users had used Silk Road “products.”
One can only wonder if that percentage will increase. There is also a view by some users that buying drugs online is safer because they don’t have to worry about being robbed and the quality of drugs is better.
It may be true that users won’t get robbed, if the term implies being physically accosted. However, dealers as well as users can still get ripped off. Drugs might not get delivered to the online user. This would be more likely on a site other than I2P based TMP.
In the Addiction study , over three-quarters of the respondents indicated they used Silk Road because it had better-quality drugs. The question is: will this so called “quality” be a constant”
It's not as if an unhappy customer can complain. I also question whether better quality means “safer”— particularly if the drug being sold is more potent than what is normally used.
There is also an erroneous assumption being made by some that only users are buying from these online dealers.
We can’t assume that traditional drug dealers will not take advantage of the same so called “pros” buying their supply online to sell in the streets. Tor is easier to use than I2P, but buying from the street is still quicker, no matter which underground network is considered.
Online sales won't stop street sales. Amazon and Ebay, after all, have not closed all the brick and mortar stores.
Clearly we are seeing a new front opened on the drug war.
Many who think that drugs should be made legal believe that this new front is a method for drug activity to be made “safe,”—somehow leading to legalization. No doubt there is a lot of marijuana being sold on these underground sites.
However, the Addiction study reflects, between 53 and 60 percent of respondents bought MDMA, while 35 and 51 percent bought marijuana.
Legalizing marijuana is one thing; but legalizing MDMA, cocaine, heroin, and meth is not on the horizon. Even if certain drug sales are legalized, it still will not be an unregulated market place. Sales tax will need to be collected in the same way as taxes are collected for alcohol.
Additionally, there would still be populations restricted or prohibited from using drugs, such as minors and offenders with substance abuse problems.
An online market place would not alleviate these concerns. In fact, it may exacerbate these issues.
No one checks a minor's age on the Dark Web. And unlike a credit card account, bitcoins have no age restrictions. Collecting sales taxes there would also be problematic, since no one likes paying taxes.
Law enforcement will have to aggressively investigate these online markets, whether they are on Tor or I2P, before it gets out of hand. They will have to get dealers and users alike and follow the leads where they may go.
Additionally, they will have to also highlight, whenever possible, the negative aspects of these online market places, ie, you are liable to have your bitcoins stolen or your computer infected.
If they do not shake the confidence level, this online underground will only grow and be a conduit to bypass any regulation and/or taxation efforts.
On that note, I left a cigar lit somewhere. Be safe out there.
Editors Note: For more on this issue, please see TCR March 14, 2014 “Getting Your High on the Internet”
Art Bowker has over 28 years’ experience in law enforcement/corrections and is recognized as an expert in managing cyber-risk in offender populations. In addition to co-writing Investigating Internet Crimes, 1st Edition: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace, (Syngress, 2013), he is also the author of The Cybercrime Handbook for Community Corrections: Managing Offender Risk in the 21st Century. (Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Ltd. 2012) He welcomes comments from readers.