Darknet is ‘like eBay’ for drugs, hit men and child porn

Rising use of the deep web by criminals has forced global law enforcers to go virtual

Hand-in-hand with increased customer traffic on the Darknet comes increased focus by law enforcement agencies

Hand-in-hand with increased customer traffic on the Darknet comes increased focus by law enforcement agencies

 

“Congratulations!” shout the large green letters printed across the computer screen. You can now browse the internet anonymously. Welcome to the Darknet.

Sitting in the Dublin Castle headquarters of the Garda National Drugs Unit (GNDU), two detectives who spend much of their time monitoring criminal activity on the deep web, open the portal. From here, users link to countless websites selling everything from hard drugs to killers-for-hire.

“Anything you want is more or less it,” deadpans one, as another click brings us to a marketplace replete with images of pills and powders, a veritable Willy Wonka world of illegal wonders for anyone interested. “It’s like eBay, ” says his associate with a nod to just how accessible and quasi-commercial the Darknet has become.

A global law enforcement operation last November shut down about 400 such websites but, just as with street-corner dealers, more vendors appear instantly, taking their place with a greater awareness of cyber security and encryption techniques.

Of 17 arrests, two were in Ireland. The alleged offenders, accused of drugs possession with intent to supply, were located in a part of Dublin city that, 20 years ago, was ground zero for the more traditional form of on-street dealing. Things are changing.

“It’s difficult to gauge the amount of drug users that use the Darknet to acquire them but some research in the UK in 2014 said some 20 per cent of drug users sourced drugs via the Darknet. It paints an interesting picture looking forward,” says Det Sgt Brian Roberts.

Along with his partner, he is a sort of personification of the changes in the trade: both moved from on-street surveillance to policing the Darknet.

“The challenge is very big with regard to the modern era [of drug dealing]. Unfortunately there is no doubt that people will still use this means to acquire drugs but law enforcement will keep on top of it.”

It’s a bit like Fight Club; not so much that the first rule is “don’t talk about the Darknet”, more that secrecy is implied and supported by the system and those taking part.

TOR (The Onion Router), which requires Tor Browser bundle software to access it, lets users navigate web material anonymously. Created by the US navy and funded by the State Department, it is by far the most popular means through which Darknet activity is supported.

The name reflects its modus operandi: TOR has multiple layers. Each level of security relies on a circuitous route with several “nodes” – basically computers and servers covering the tracks of users. With numerous connection points, each one obscuring the last, identities and locations remain opaque.

Impunity

Last year Facebook formalised the use of TOR for any of its users who wanted it, probably as an overture to those in countries where the site is strictly controlled or monitored.

In last November’s pan-continental crackdown, police and security agencies closed sites including BMR (Black Market Reloaded which dealt in guns), Sheep Market, Pandora, Tor Market, Utopia and Cannabis Road. Today, Agora and Evolution are the main marketplaces. Some specialise, most are hypermarkets for all things illicit.

A typical site displays numerous images of contraband for sale: ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana, even lollypops laced with THC (the active substance in cannabis).

Side bars on Darknet sites offer shortcuts to various categories such as “services” (hit men), electronics, forgeries (passports) and jewellery. Child pornography also exists in this shady world, although access to such content is even more closely guarded by those who control it.

In the US, a recent addition to the plethora of sought-after wares is the 3D-printed firearm. Once it is purchased, the owner need only buy a metal firing pin.

“The other thing that is available is precursor chemicals to make drugs,” says Det Sgt Roberts.

It is surprisingly easy to access the deep web, quite legitimately. Those exchanging information may cover their tracks through the use of public and private “keys”, a method by which content can be encrypted and only unlocked by those with access to that specific private key. Encrypted information appears as a chunk of nonsensical, garbled script before the key translates it into clear language.

Somewhere between the growing use of the Darknet for illicit purposes, and enforcement agency successes in shutting it down (as illustrated by last November’s events), is the true picture of how safe this world is to occupy.

The police operation, which focused on 16 EU countries and the US (including the closure of Silk Road 2.0, the second incarnation of the infamous drug dealing depot) drew varying comment. Some saw it as a sign of improved effectiveness on the part of police; others cited the relatively few arrests as pointing to exactly the opposite.

What is certain, however, is that this world is being monitored and no doubt increasingly so.

In October 2013, Ross William Ulbricht, alleged by the FBI to be the owner of Silk Road and the person behind the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts”, was arrested in San Francisco.

Last month a jury convicted Ulbricht of continuing criminal enterprise, narcotics-trafficking, money-laundering and computer-hacking. He faces 30 years to life in prison.

Cultural insight

Many who exist in the Darknet consider themselves to be operating in a world ideally free of law enforcement or government. As one of the Dublin Castle detectives puts it: “They feel like a community. They don’t see themselves as criminals; they see themselves as freedom fighters almost.”

Ulbricht, and his supporters, fit this bill. Those who supported him during his New York trial were described by Newsweek as “a group of self-styled anarcho-libertarians”. A self-taught programmer, Ulbricht was a high achiever, earning a full college scholarship before eventually netting an estimated $80 million (€74 million) through Silk Road. In a blind online interview with Forbes magazine, he said the site was “a way to get around the regulation of the state”.

Through a combination of surveillance, infiltration and betrayal, he was caught in October 2013 when two FBI agents staged a decoy fight in the public library in which he was sitting.

Another agent pounced on his open laptop before a distracted Ulbricht had a chance to shut it down.

Darknet sourced contraband is delivered through regular postal systems and the entire transaction is facilitated by hundreds of cryptocurrencies, the most famous and common of which is bitcoin. Once a term familiar only to those with a certain level of technological know-how, it is now far more widely recognised.

In Ireland it can be exchanged for regular currency – bringing your “bitcoin wallet” into an existing city exchange in early March would have netted you €260 for each bitcoin. The exchange rate, which was at $1,000 (€920) last October, fluctuates like any other.

Due to its nature, efforts to crack down on virtual crime is taking law enforcement away from traditional jurisdictional boundaries, and in turn increasing the necessity for international police co-operation through the likes of Interpol. Whereas information in the past may have been closely guarded by individual forces, it is now increasingly shared given the global nature of online crime. In last November’s international operation, about $1 million worth of bitcoin was recovered.

As Det Sgt Roberts explains: “You seize the memory stick or you seize the laptop which has a bitcoin wallet which shows how much you have. So you are basically seizing an electronic storage device with a code.”

Drug route

However, as Det Sgt Roberts points out, these postal systems still require physical addresses for delivery. And this is the obvious Achilles’ heel of such virtual crime: a physical product requires a physical address for both sender and recipient.

There is also the probability that those involved in dealing will trip themselves up. As was the case in the Ulbricht investigation, officers will trawl metadata (emails, blog posts, photographs etc) for any glimpse of a clue as to someone’s true identity and location. Mirroring historic crime-fighting, the criminal invariably makes mistakes.

And so hand-in-hand with increased customer traffic comes increased focus by law enforcement agencies. If last November’s highly publicised police sting is anything to go by, global law enforcement is watching. Even if you don’t always know they’re there.