The darknet: an Amazon.com for the drug trade

Trade in illicit drugs through secretive and covert corner of internet will worry gardaí and street dealers alike

The sites where trade is conducted are encrypted and cannot be accessed by the normal servers used by billions around the globe every day. Users can only access the darknet via a special browser, rather than the traditional routes such as Internet Explorer or Chrome

The sites where trade is conducted are encrypted and cannot be accessed by the normal servers used by billions around the globe every day. Users can only access the darknet via a special browser, rather than the traditional routes such as Internet Explorer or Chrome

 

The move by the Garda this week against men suspected of involvement in dealing illicit drugs via the so-called darknet was the first such operation of its kind in the Republic. Drug dealing, however, via that shady corner of the internet, is nothing new.

The darknet has become the equivalent of an Amazon site for those who want to buy highs rather than books. It has grown globally, underpinned by the principles of using technology to hide the identities and locations of those who buy and sell all manner of items outside the law.

The darknet is essentially a secretive and covert corner of the internet – a private network – where all users go by pseudonyms. Establishing the identity of sellers and buyers is incredibly difficult and getting a fix on anyone’s location is also a mammoth task.

The sites where trade is conducted are encrypted and cannot be accessed by the normal servers used by billions around the globe every day. Users can only access the darknet via a special browser, rather than the traditional routes such as Internet Explorer or Chrome. Once accessed, the string of meaningless numbers that make up website addresses end in .onion rather than .com or .ie.

The browser, originally the brainchild of the US military, does not allow law enforcement authorities to trace users via IP addresses. That is a now old-school policing method that has scuppered many engaged in illegal activity on the traditional internet, including those trading in images of child sexual abuse.

However, in the secretive darknet world,the special browser bounces a user’s point of contact details around the globe in such a way that makes unravelling the maze almost impossible. It is a mechanism behind which not only drug dealers hide, but also whistleblowers, hackers, political activists and a variety of dissident and militant groupings globally. Once on the darknet, the buying and selling of drugs appears to be the most common activity.

Those looking to score can turn to the Silk Road 2 site. It boasts thousands of vendors with merchandise ready to send to customers anywhere in the world via the conventional postal service. Once an order is placed, payment is made in the virtual currency bitcoin. While it can be turned into traditional money via specialist bureau de change services, it is a payment method under which determining the identity of payer or payee is a gargantuan task.

On many of the sites, the service of dealers is rated by customer reviews. They grade, in marks out of five, everything from the reliability and speed of delivery to the friendliness of dealers in responding to queries and complaints. The key reviews relate to the purity of the drugs sold and consumed.

These generate such competition for custom that they ensure a “race to the top”, so to speak, where dealers are trying to provide the highest purity level in the most efficient and friendliest manner possible.

Some of the drugs are more expensive online, although others are cheaper and reportedly purer than the same substances sold on the streets. Growing exponentially every year, the darknet looks like the new – cleaner, more sophisticated and mostly less risky – street corner.

It is a world where only truly smart policing will compete with those tech-savvy dealers apparently operating outside the gangland subculture.