The Dark Web and Online Illegal Drug Sales. Is it a growing trend in Australia?
The dark web – mysterious, exotic and dangerous. A place where anonymous hackers can take down a corporate or government website in seconds resulting in millions of dollars in economic damage at a click of a mouse. Is it just a place for civil disobedience, whistle-blowers and illicit online behavior? What is the dark web and why are we lured into its spell?
A place that used to be for only the savviest of hackers, the dark net has become the newest way to traffic drugs. An 18 year old Australian teen that was busted last September with close to $60,000 in drugs he bought from the dark web faced 25 years in prison for drug importing.
More recently, a 43 year old man in Sydney was arrested allegedly supplying prohibited drugs on the dark web. NSW Police searched the properties at Wolli Creek and Tempe,where they seized cocaine, MDMA, magic mushrooms, more than $12,000 cash and drug paraphenalia.
Peddling drugs through the dark web is becoming more attractive, especially for teens trying to make a quick, easy buck from the comfort of their own home.
The anonymity that the dark net offers gives people a false sense of security. As a result, we are seeing people who would never have considered selling drugs on the street getting involved in illegal online drug sales. However, these young people have no idea of the risks they are taking or the trouble they can get into if caught.
According to research presented by the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association Conference, Australia is a leading country in the darknet drugs trade. The report highlights how we have more online drug vendors per capita than any other nation except for the Netherlands. Australian crypto market vendors sell disproportionately more ecstasy and opioids globally. We also lead the way with more than a “quarter of the world’s dark net methamphetamine trade (27.1%).
What is the dark net?
The dark net runs parallel to the internet we use for all of our standard online activities. However, unlike other websites it is only accessible via software like Tor that makes a user’s identity anonymous by routing online communications through several computers and layers of encryption. Although the software has legitimate uses like protecting internet users in authoritarian countries, the dark net is also being used by many for illegal activities like selling drugs or purchasing weapons.
According to Brad Chacos from PCWorld, the “Deep Web” is dynamic database queries, shifting URLs and odd file formats that are deliberately designed to hide net-connected stuff from the prying eyes of major search engines. Dark net websites or Onionland directories “cloak themselves in obscurity with specialized software that guarantees encryption and anonymity between users, as well as protocols or domains that the average webizen will never stumble across.”
Why is the dark net popular for selling drugs?
Buying and selling drugs on the street is dangerous. You could get jumped or ripped off at any time. Not to mention getting arrested and charged by law enforcement for drug trafficking. Customers believe they have a significantly less chance of getting arrested or sold dodgy stuff online. Consumers who purchase drugs from the Dark net typically report access to higher quality drugs than those available offline.
People looking for a safer option to buying and selling on the streets are turning to the dark net. But is buying drugs on the internet safer?
What are the risks?
Using the dark net does not come without risk. Can you really trust websites on the dark net? Users do not have the same protection on the dark net as they do on the internet. Often people who run these websites pose as buyers and sellers in order to steal personal information. Many websites on the dark net are traps designed to disrupt operations, scam users out of money or hack into people’s computer systems to deliver malware.
For example, a popular dark net site, Evolution, vanished in March 2015 with $12m-worth of customers’ bitcoin in an “exit scam”. Agora soon followed suite when it disappeared, with the claim that it had to fix security flaws.
Also, the promise of getting cheaper drug products off the dark net is an illusion. According to the Economist dark web giants, Agora, Silk Road2 and Evolution sold approximately $27 million in illegal drugs in 2015 but not for a bargain. For example, a gram of heroin was found to cost almost twice as much online than that found on the street and cocaine was marked up by 40% in most countries.
Finally, there is a misconception that you cannot get caught buying and selling illicit drugs off the dark net. This is far from true.
How do online drug traffickers get caught?
There is a point during an online drug transaction where the buyer and seller have to connect in some shape or form in the real world. Anonymous postal boxes and accessing public Wi-Fi in cafes and libraries may not provide enough protection. Although bitcoins are extremely hard to trace, the vulnerability occurs when cash is turned into bitcoins or when they are converted back into cash.
People have also gotten caught when advertising or bragging about their trade on the public internet.
Finally, just as scammers go on the dark net posing as buyers, so too can the police.
What happens if you get caught with drugs from the Dark Web?
Your movements online are harder to track than text messages but not impossible. You do not have to be a big time supplier to get charged under the criminal code for online drug transactions. For example, you can be charged as a drug trafficker for importing as little as 0.5 gram of MDMA or two grams of coke. Quantities vary state-by-state. Just as it is with drug sales on the street, “a drug conviction can have a long term impact on someone’s life, including limiting career prospects and making it difficult to travel overseas.
However, when an online shipment is intercepted by law enforcement police might find it difficult to prove the accused had sole custody and control of the online shipment. ‘Exclusive possession’ is especially hard to prove if there are a number of people who had access to the computer and/or the package was not addressed to the name of the person being charged.
Border Protection and police service resources are already stretched slim. With the amount of high level street crime going on in Australia, critics wonder if pursuing low level online drug possession is worth it. With only 23 reported arrests of Australians linked to English-language dark net markets according to Gwern.net, it does not seem so.