Dark Web’s $100M Drug Operation Rolls On

Silk Road is gone and its founder jailed, but the Dark Web’s drug marketplace is thriving.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When Silk Road’s founder Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison last June, Judge Katherine Forrest gave a stern warning to would-be Dark Web operators eager to supply the void: “They need to understand, without equivocation, that there will be severe consequences.”

It appears Judge Kathy’s memo never made it across the ether, because the shadowy world of underground e-commerce is alive and well, according to a new study out of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Results from this stealthy investigation reveal, among other things, the utter futility in policing these ethereally illicit marketplaces. Locking up “kingpins” like Ulbricht has been revealed to not make a dent in the amount of illicit traffic overall, much like big-time arrests in the real world war on drugs. The authors hope their efforts will influence policing tactics, which by their measures, have been mostly irrelevant and expensive.

CMU researcher Nicholas Christin and his colleague Kyle Soska conducted their study by surveying Dark Web markets using innovative methods. These consisted of “crawling” through online anonymous marketplaces and parsing the content. They then used a technique called “scraping”—an automated software that extracts and harvests information from websites—on 35 Dark Web markets. They had to do all of this without being spotted by potential market operators. Consider it an academic rendition of Mission Impossible.

Christin and Soska’s massive effort cataloged the various products being sold (mostly cannabis, psychedelics, and opioids) along with their vendors and buyers, totaling 3.2 terabytes of data. This information has produced the clearest image of the Dark Web’s illicit economy to date, which tells us no matter how many sites are shut down, how many big busts occur, underground e-trade will continue business as usual.

The data show that, despite government crackdowns and admins performing exit scams, “the market is relatively stable,” Christin told Wired. After analyzing online transactions from 2013 to 2015, daily sales were found to fluctuate between $300,000 and $500,000 per day, which means $100 million to $180 million in sales a year. These figures are small potatoes in relation to the most recent UN report, which tallied the global drug trade at a colossal $321.6 billion, or 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

Less than 0.1 percent of all drug trade occurs in the Dark Web, yet expensive global operations relentlessly pursue and shut down these marketplaces.

In light of their findings, the study’s authors wrote something of a plea for law enforcement officials to re-think how these illicit marketplaces are policed: “While members of Congress have routinely called for the take down of ‘brazen’ online marketplaces, it is unclear that this is the most pragmatic use of taxpayer money.”

Christin and Soska predict the “cat-and-mouse game” between law enforcement and market operators will not end so long as shutting down the marketplace is the only aim. For instance, after the FBI and Europol’s Operation Onymous, which destroyed several Dark Web markets, sales never dropped below $100 million per year. Users simply flock to new sites or sometimes they create their own, and so the game of cat-and-mouse turns into an endless round of Dark Web whack-a-mole.

Now that the ineffectiveness of shutting down these markets has been documented, the researchers have good reason to inform law enforcement of smarter alternatives.

Christin suggests more practical solutions. “From a law enforcement perspective, we argue that rather than trying to shut down whole marketplaces (which is not very fruitful), it may be a much better idea to focus on vendors selling dangerous products,” he said.

He’s not referring to seizing narcotics such as heroin or ecstasy when he speaks of “dangerous products.” What he expressed worry about was the trade of toxicants such as ricin, which when purified, can kill an adult human with an amount no larger than a few grains of salt.

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Going after vendors of dangerous products, Christin added, “can usually be done by traditional policing techniques, as has been demonstrated time and again with vendor arrests.” These techniques do not involve the FBI hacking the anonymity Tor provides.

The resiliency of Dark Web ecosystems reveals something we all know but perhaps refuse to accept: Millions of people all over the world want to use and buy drugs, and there is no stopping them. Given this obvious assertion, many argue that procuring narcotics on the Dark Web is much safer than purchasing them at the street level.

“It stands to reason,” Christin said, “that the absence of face-to-face intervention removes one possible factor of violence at the retail level, and that a functioning reviewing system actually helps reduce risk of getting low-quality products.”

I reached out to several individuals who procure drugs via the Dark Web to get their take. “I just got sick of not knowing what the fuck was in a bag of ‘molly,’” one user said. “I bought a test kit and have yet to buy anything that wasn’t as advertised.”

When I asked another Dark Web wanderer whether he felt safer purchasing drugs online as opposed to face-to-face he said, “It’s much scarier buying off the corner where you have no recourse. On sites like Silk Road, your money would sit in escrow until you gave a positive review and confirmed delivery.”

In line with Christin, the same user said, “Other buyers could post reviews so I would base my purchases off of those.”

It’s experiences like these that Ulbricht’s defense attorney urged the judge to keep in mind when deciding his punishment. Despite evidence of reducing harm and being committed to customer satisfaction, the 29-year-old Silk Road operator received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The judge called his defense of harm reduction one of privilege.

Bill Mackey, a doctoral student who studies cybercrime at the University of Cincinnati, is pursuing lines of research that aim to solidify Dark Web dealings potential for harm reduction.

“To my knowledge, there is no official data to support this idea yet, but it certainly has merit and we are looking at how to best approach establishing an empirical understanding of the issue,” he said.

As for cybercrime, it’s becoming more and more “a part of everyone’s daily life (see all the recent data breaches), and, much like street crime, we need to start paying it an appropriate amount of attention,” Mackey said.

Just as in the real world, in the Dark Web the same saying goes: Determination may overcome any obstacle.