February 2018

Out of the darkness: understanding drugs and the deep web

The mainstream media has now latched onto the arrival in Australia of the dangerous drug fentanyl and its even more lethal cousin, carfentantyl, but what hasn’t received a lot of coverage yet is how users might be obtaining the drugs.

The dark net, sometimes called ‘the deep web’, is home to many shadowy and illegal trading sites. It’s the world’s marketplace of choice for many drugs now, including fentanyl (which appears to comprise more than 10 per cent of sales, according to recent research).

Accessible from any desktop with the right software, the dark net is the home for websites that are basically the eBay or Amazon of illegal purchasing activity, such as weapons, drugs, or codes to hack websites or cause digital disruption.

Of course, knowing how to access the dark net and make purchases requires a level of technical competence.

“You have to be reasonably confident that you can manage the ‘dark arts’ side of it,” says Professor Roderic Broadhurst, a Professor of Criminology at the Australian National University.

“Amateurs will not survive very long on there.

“You need to know how to use a TOR (The Onion Router), and how to use cryptocurrencies to buy drugs. I think it’s often used by middle class, recreational drug users; professionals in cities who might be looking to get cocaine, for example,” Roderic says.

“Street users are still probably using methamphetamines, bought on the street, but for recreational users wanting drugs, the dark web is pretty nice. DreamMarket (a major dark net marketplace) really mimics the real-world sites like eBay with vendor ratings and instructions.”

Dr Monica Barratt, a research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, agrees that the dark net was not a place for the naïve or the uneducated. She said her research suggested maybe one in 10 drug users have used it, or know somebody who has used it.

“People say it’s just a click away but there’s all the stuff you have to go through.

“There are the technological capabilities you need, and an understanding of how bitcoin works, and so on,” she says.

“Do you need an anonymous operating system, maybe on a USB stick, so there’s no trace on your actual computer, and then there’s the question of where can the drugs be delivered? Are you going to use your own name and address, with the risks associated, or the name of an ex-housemate, who it wouldn’t be unreasonable for a letter or package to arrive for? Or a fake name, which can be dangerous? But does the Post Office care if John Smith is having letters sent to your address?”

Not surprisingly, Monica said that informal research the NDARC has conducted, in surveys – there’s really no way of pulling together accurate data on dark net usage or numbers – suggests that one person, who has their head around all of these aspects, tends to buy off the dark net and then distribute or sell to a wider community.

The NDARC research suggests that the convenience of having drugs delivered straight to an address or a post office box is an attraction of dark net purchasing, while other users have been enthusiastic about the wide variety of drugs available. Monica says more than 700 different varieties, classes and strands of drugs are available, covering MDMA, many kinds of cannabis, amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, LSD and other hallucinogens, and then many pharma strains, analogues and synthetics.

The dark net emerged as a source of drugs in early 2011, when Silk Road was established. Almost seven years later, several incarnations of that site have come and gone and other market sites have emerged, with vendor ratings, forums and communities to discuss the reliability of purchases and so on part of the deep web. Drug prices may be 20-50 per cent cheaper, according to a paper by Roderic and David Lord, from the ANU.

But of course, dangers remain. Roderic says sites are being constantly hit by law enforcement, competitors or exit scams, where buyers are burnt by vendors who take the cryptocurrency and vanish. Monica explains that one major marketplace was secretly taken over by Dutch police in June 2017. The police continued to run the site for a full month, with vendors and buyers unaware of what had happened, trading with all the usual information, until the arrests began.

Roderic says the really giant global dark net markets are China and South America. Australia is a minor player, with Monica saying the fact packages, even an innocuous-looking flat pack letter, must pass through Australia’s custom barriers adds a degree of risk.

For that reason, a lot of the dark net drug trading in Australia is domestic, with local vendors charging higher prices for Australia Post domestic delivery, with less risk attached.

Aside from potential detection, another danger for users is simply not receiving their package after paying for it, with posting a bad review of the vendor as their only recourse. But given vendors are anonymous and many come and go in this shadowy world, that might not mean much.

The attraction of buying through these sites is being able to have small, subtle parcels arrive, with hard-to-detect amounts of drugs…

The other major risk facing dark net buyers is the potency of the product, when it arrives. The attraction of buying through these sites is being able to have small, subtle parcels arrive, with hard-to-detect amounts of drugs. Roderic calls it “ants moving house”. But this means buyers tend to purchase smaller, more potent products, such as fentanyl, which can be deadly.

“It’s a lot like the Prohibition of alcohol back in the day in the US,” Monica says. “Beer was harder to transport, whereas more potent liquor could be hidden, but was more intense for the people consuming. With the dark net, people might say I’ll order something small but potent, then divide it up and mix it with other things and sell it to make a lot of money.”

For the purchaser, there is no way of knowing exactly what is in the drug mix as they use it, and that can have serious consequences.

Roderic advocates that injecting rooms and NSPs should definitely have systems in place and naloxone on hand, for when synthetic opioids are accidentally injected. The dark net has proven to be robust and effective as a drug market place. It’s now part of the NSP world.

Nick Place

Terms to know when discussing the Dark Net:

Cryptocurrencies: Digital currencies that can be traded anonymously, and digitally, avoiding traditional international currencies. Bitcoin is the most famous but there are others.

Dark Net: Also known as the dark web or the deep web. The term ‘dark net’ refers to networks that are not indexed by search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. These networks are not available to the general internet public, and are only accessible via special authorisation, specific software and configurations. The dark net includes harmless places such as academic databases and corporate sites, as well as those with less legal topics such as black markets (for things like drugs and weapons), hacking and piracy.

DreamMarket: A leading market place on the dark net, along with Agora and AlphaBay, in the way the original Silk Road was. According to the Australian National University Cybercrime Observatory, in October 2017, 100,722 products involving 1900 vendors were listed on DreamMarket. Drugs account for half of all products sold.

TOR (The Onion Router): A torrent-based operating system that is completely encrypted and anonymous, and works in much the same way as the old Pirate Bay online audio-visual torrent site. A torrent is a communication protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing which is used to distribute data and electronic files over the internet.