The expanding influence of the internet (EU Drug Markets Report)

The expanding influence of the internet

Figure 2.2

Understanding the web: the iceberg analogy

An important contributor to globalisation that has impacted on the drug market in a number of different ways is the internet, providing not only new ways to access customers and suppliers but also opportunities to enhance the efficiency and security of off-line criminal activities. The internet encompasses what is known as the surface or clear web, that part of the internet that can be found by link-crawling techniques used by a typical search engine such as Google or Bing, and the deep web, which is not accessible to these search engines (see Figure 2.2). The deep web comprises a wide variety of different types of content, including dynamic web pages, private sites, blocked sites and limited access networks. These are generally accessible only by conducting a search of a particular website; for example, much of the information contained in government databases and libraries lies in the deep web. However, a small proportion of the content on the deep web, known as the dark web or dark net, has been intentionally hidden and is accessible only using special web browsers. This is the portion of the internet most associated with illicit activities because of the relative anonymity associated with this network. However, while much attention has been given to the online marketplaces found on the deep web, the surface web also plays an important role, particularly with respect to sales of new psychoactive substances.

The internet as a facilitator of drug trafficking processes

The internet facilitates drug trafficking in many ways, along all stages of the chain, but a key benefit of internet use for drug supply is the reduction of risk by allowing different stages of the trafficking process to be managed without the need for physical interaction with people, for example through the use of online booking and parcel tracking systems. Similarly, internet phone services, such as Skype, are used to avoid detection through the interception of communications (Lavorgna, 2016).

The deep web also provides opportunities for criminals to network through underground forums and, in addition to providing new opportunities for profit (through online sales), it provides new ways for money laundering and buying access to technical skills (see Case study 7). The dark net markets also open up the possibility of the establishment of new networks of drug producers/manufacturers, wholesalers, brokers and drug-using customers, on a scale and with a degree of freedom that significantly exceeds what was possible through conventional, interpersonal criminal networks (Martin, 2014). Previously, trafficking required a chain of on-the-ground connections and relationships of trust with drug dealers at different levels and/or producers and importers (McCarthy and Hagan, 2001; Morselli, 2001). With the advent of the dark net market, almost anyone with sufficient technological skills can access stock and, using postal delivery, serve a (potentially) worldwide market of unknown customers they encounter only in the virtual sphere (Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2014).

In this rapidly developing marketplace, it is not yet clear to what extent dark net markets, by directly linking drug-using customers and producers/manufacturers, cut out some of the middle level in the drug supply chain (Martin, 2013) or whether most are ‘business-to-business’ sales that represent the middle level of a drug market (Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2014). While a very limited number of cases of connections to more sophisticated drug trafficking operations on Silk Road 2.0 suggest that some vendors may have ties to sources above the retail level (Dolliver, 2015), emerging analysis of sales on a range of dark net marketplaces suggests that most are smaller-scale operations. Many vendors operate on the market for only a short period of time, and the majority (70 %) sell products worth no more than EUR 900 (12) (USD 1 000) in total, with only about 2 % of vendors managing to sell product totalling more than EUR 90 000 (USD 100 000) (Soska and Christin, 2015). A search of available data did not reveal any traditional OCGs selling and distributing drugs online, but it is not clear if this is because of a failure of detection as a result of the emergence of a new type of ‘tech-savvy’ OCG — a ‘generational shift’. At present, there also appears to be little overlap between drug and non-drug trade activities and networks, with vendors generally selling either drugs or non-drug items (i.e. weapons, hacking, credit cards, etc.) but not usually both (Compton, 2015). However, continued monitoring is necessary to determine whether this market divide will continue, or whether criminal diversity will increase.

Technologies that provide some anonymity to internet users are particularly important as the perceived anonymity associated with the deep web can make people feel more comfortable engaging in illegal activities including, but not limited to, the drug trade (Ciancaglini et al., 2015). The operators on the dark net use a variety of systems to conceal their identity. Anonymisation tools, such as the Onion Router (Tor), are commonly used to hide the identity of participants and transactions, and these are complemented by crypto-currencies, the best known of which is bitcoin, although others continue to evolve.

Case study 7: Accessing skills through the internet

In June 2013, police in Belgium and the Netherlands dismantled a Netherlands-based drug smuggling ring. The gang had hired hackers to infiltrate the systems controlling the movement and location of shipping containers at a large container port. This allowed the gang to manipulate the data to allow their own drivers to remove drug-loaded shipping containers before the legitimate haulier could collect them. 

Source: Europol (2014a).

Internet drug market places

The surface web provides access to pharmaceuticals and new psychoactive substances through online pharmacies and specialist vendors. Not all of the substances on offer will be legal but, because of the many ‘grey areas’ with respect to these substances, vendors are able to operate on the surface web with relative impunity (Lavorgna, 2016). Like online retailers of other products, they usually provide customer testimonials or reviews and may claim to provide ethically sourced products.

Dark net markets also allow customers to search and compare products and vendors, in the manner of clear net marketplaces (e.g. eBay and Amazon); a vendor’s ratings, and consequently their reputation, is one of the most important factors in creating trust and launching transactions. Following the Silk Road blueprint, in excess of 50 online anonymous markets were created between 2011 and July 2015 (Gwern Archives). At the time of writing, the Gwern Archives list 21 active and operational marketplaces, while 28 active marketplaces appeared on the Darknet Stats list at approximately the same time point (May–July 2015) (DarkNet Stats). These marketplaces are generally short-lived; the majority of those currently active appear to have been launched in the second half of 2014 or in early 2015. Market closures are generally the result of hacking, raids, exit scams (in which the site operators close the site down suddenly, taking the money from sales without fulfilling the orders) or voluntary exit and it is not clear what this market instability will mean for buyer safety or the popularity of dark net marketplaces in the future.

Although a number of successful law enforcement operations have been undertaken, including the take-down of Silk Road and Operation Onymous, these markets have proven to be very adaptable, and it appears that the effects of such interventions on the online anonymous ecosystem are short term (Soska and Christin, 2015) and those operating such sites develop new ways to evade detection, for example by improving encryption and anonymisation. It is suggested that a likely future development will be completely decentralised marketplaces that exploit aspects of game theory to side-step current weaknesses (Ciancaglini et al., 2015) — perhaps a ‘dark cloud’ on the horizon.

The drugs that feature most on dark net marketplaces are ‘traditional’ drugs, although there appears to be some variation in the pattern on different sites. For example, data from Silk Road showed that MDMA, cannabis and LSD were the three most common drugs bought in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia (Barratt et al., 2014), whereas stimulants (e.g. cocaine, methamphetamine) and hallucinogens (e.g. LSD, PCP) made up over half the drug items on the Silk Road 2.0 market (Dolliver, 2015) and a study of 16 dark net marketplaces carried out between July 2013 and January 2015 found that cannabis, MDMA and stimulants accounted for over two-thirds of market share (Soska and Christin, 2015). When drug users in a global survey were asked about drugs bought through the dark net, MDMA, cannabis, LSD and cocaine were the most commonly reported (Winstock, 2015).

The United Kingdom (10 %) and the Netherlands (6.5 %) were among the top countries of origin for all items (the majority being drug related) listed on Silk Road; the EU represented 6 % of shipping destinations listed (Christin, 2012). On Silk Road 2.0, Germany (14 %) was the second most popular country of origin for drug items listed on the site, after the United States and closely followed by the United Kingdom (13.8 %); the EU represented 9.2 % of shipping destinations offered for drug items on Silk Road 2.0 (Dolliver, 2015). Although it is not clear how complete and representative such data are, the findings suggest that Europe may be a significant player in global online drug marketplaces.

The internet as a potential tool for reducing drug market harms

The surface web is also being used increasingly to host online tools to help people use drugs more safely or to give up using illicit drugs altogether as well as signposting people to traditional harm reduction and treatment services. So there may be opportunities for benefit alongside the threat of wider drug supply.

Although dark net markets have been estimated to account, in revenue terms (13), for a very small proportion of the global drug trade, it has been argued that they are growing, serving an increasing customer base. There are a number of ways in which the use of the internet can reduce harms for both users and dealers. Research shows that customers value the quality and range of products offered by these markets, as well as the higher level of security than that afforded by street drug markets (Barratt et al., 2014; Winstock, 2015). From the drug sellers’ perspective, the principal advantages are distance from street dealing and the associated risk of law enforcement detection and intervention, as well as access to a much larger potential market of purchasers (Van Hout and Bingham, 2014; Buxton and Bingham, 2015).

In addition, both the surface web and the deep web host a range of forums and chatrooms in which drug users are able to exchange information about particular drugs and vendors. The discussions on drugs include information on effects arising from use, modes of use and appropriate dosage, which may help promote safer use. The information on vendors made available on discussion forums can alert people to vendors who supply substandard products or simply fail to deliver. In addition, most dark net marketplaces now incorporate customer feedback and ratings into their systems along with escrow systems to reduce the risk from scams (Van Hout and Bingham, 2013).

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(12) Converted using 2015 exchange rate. 

(13) Silk Road revenue generation before its closure was estimated at around EUR 13 million (USD 16.7 million) in 2012 and EUR 67.6 million (USD 89.7 million) in 2013 (Christin, 2012; Albridge and Décary-Hétu, 2014); for comparison, the global cocaine market was recently estimated to be worth between EUR 54.7 and 68.3 billion (USD 80 and 100 billion) in 2008 (UNODC, 2010a).