The dark web is mysterious, but to understand the future of drug trafficking, you have to understand how it’s done on the internet.
Think of the dark web as a hidden layer of the intranet that exploits communication technologies and monetary frameworks in order to facilitate the often illegal exchange of goods and services. It’s essentially a digital marketplace designed to keep transactions anonymous and private. Use of the dark web requires special access, software and complex configurations. Because of the anonymity it provides, the dark web has become a popular source for illicit dark web drugs.
Who Built the Dark Web?
The technology behind the dark web was originally created by the US Department of Defense for the purpose of protecting sensitive communications between spies. It also offered an incredibly useful pathway for the dissemination of information, especially in countries with authoritarian governments who restricted free speech. Almost unintentionally, this communication technology provided a “digital roof” under which new markets could develop as demand for decentralized drug dealing grew. When governmental drug policy is restrictive, black markets will organically expand to meet a demand, unfortunately creating opportunities for unregulated manufacture and distribution.
Dark Web Drug Sales
Drug sales on the dark web now amount to 315 million dollars annually, up from 80 million dollars annually just in 2017. In 2015, Gareth Owenson, a leading academic expert in the UK on the Dark Web, reported that 15.4% of indexed websites in the dark web were drug-related, despite the very low rate of hidden service requests for darknet markets related to drugs in comparison to, for example, some form of criminal abuse. While darknet markets for drugs are ultimately only a tiny fraction of the total market for black market drugs, decentralized digital drug buying via the dark web is quickly picking up steam and will likely represent a major way black markets operate moving forward in our increasingly atomized world.
Online drug marketplaces seem to have started around 2011, when Silk Road disrupted the way people buy drugs, shifting from dark alleys to the dark web. Buying drugs online allows consumers to order from a smorgasbord of narcotics, delivered to the door via the postal system. From opioids and marijuana to crack, heroin, and fentanyl, it’s a porous buyer’s market.
Illegal drug sales online are not only commonplace, but also tough to detect, according to a recent University of Texas study. With an uptick in the use of opioid painkillers, fentanyl, and heroin, lead University of Texas study author Tiffany Champagne-Langabeer states this is fueling the opioid epidemic. The reason that law enforcement struggles to crack down on these online drug sales is the fact they are conducted out of plain sight on the dark web. We’ll give you a snapshot into these online marketplaces, but first a few words on opioids, the cause of current concern in the wake of recent research.
How Do People Access the Dark Web?
There are three classical layers to the internet:
- Surface web
- Deep web
- Dark web
All regular web pages indexed by the main search engines, like Google, belong to the surface web. Beneath this visible layer are pages that search engines cannot access. This does not denote contentious or sinister content. All web pages accessible via passwords, Netflix and Amazon pages, and your Facebook Messenger inbox are all examples of deep web content. You can only access this material by clicking a link from another webpage, or inputting the exact web address.
Below this hidden but non-inflammatory layer comes the dark web, the area of the internet researchers in the Texas study penetrated. Most estimates suggest at least 5% of all web content resides on the dark web. A 2015 study of dark web content found over 50% of all material hosted was illicit. The fact that dark web content is inaccessible to search engines like Google is an asset for anyone looking to buy or sell illegal narcotics online.
One way drug sellers and buyers access the dark web is through a browser called TOR, short for The Onion Router. This browser provides multiple “onion layers” of encryption. The only way these sites can be accessed is through specific kinds of domain names ending in “.onion,” which get routed through a massive series of relays to mask internet traffic. Another type of “browser” those looking for darknet markets use is called I2P. It primarily bypasses censorship but is also used to access the general dark web.
Darknet Markets for Dark Web Drugs
Search engines devoted to drugs like Cannahome list tens of thousands of substances across multiple marketplaces. Authors of the University of Texas study found almost 250,000 listings related to opioids on dark marketplaces, with over 28,000 product listings for opioids. As you would expect, a sprawling and unregulated marketplace like this attracts legions of scammers and con-artists, which have been the downfall of many darknet marketplaces.
Silk Road was one such marketplace dedicated to creating a place in which buyers and sellers could operate independently and anonymously. Occasionally, international law enforcement agencies will seize marketplaces; you’ll get an FBI or INTERPOL homepage image when you try to access them notifying you of its seizure by LEOs.
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