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Digital refugees flee via Silk Road to black markets in drugs

The Silk Road was once a river of commerce across continents. It lives again on the ‘dark net’, that part of the internet that operates on the encrypted TOR network. Wikimedia Commons

Recent media reports have once again put the public spotlight on cryptomarkets, the eBay-style websites operating on the encrypted dark net. They facilitate a vast and anonymous global trade in black market goods and services, particularly illicit drugs.

To date, only two cryptomarkets have been taken offline by state authorities. The biggest success for law enforcement – the much-lauded FBI operation that shut down the infamous Silk Road – resulted in only a short-term reduction in cryptomarket trading activity.

Alleged Silk Road founder Ross William Ulbricht was arrested in the Science Fiction section of the Glen Park Library on October 2, 2013. Silk Road 2.0 came online 35 days later, on November 6. Steve Rhodes/Flickr, CC BY

Cryptomarkets are proving surprisingly resistant to attack by law enforcement. Despite ongoing arrests, site closures, hacks, Bitcoin seizures and frauds, the online drugs business is not only persisting but is estimated to be bigger than ever.

An unprecedented number of illicit sites are in operation. Even the once-dominant Silk Road was recently eclipsed in size by another cryptomarket, the upstart Agora.

Cryptomarkets have shown a remarkable capacity to persist in the face of constant attacks by law enforcement and cybercriminals. It is worth reflecting on the factors that underpin the resilience of online illicit drug trading.

Chasing clouds: the difficulty of cybercrime

Technical and logistical complexity are undoubtedly the most prominent and commented upon factors that frustrate the efforts of law enforcement and contribute to the survivability of cryptomarkets.

Free yet incredibly powerful communications and encryption technologies conceal the identities, locations and financial transactions of those engaging in illicit transactions online.

Physical separation also complicates the work of investigators. Unlike conventional drug deals, illicit drugs ordered online are delivered through the post. This means that the vendor and consumer never meet face to face.

This also precludes the possibility for much of the violence associated with conventional drug dealing.

Traditional policing methods struggle to contain the contraband, drugs, laundered money and guns that stream through the internet. Scorpians and Centaurs/Flickr, CC BY

Encryption and geographical separation make the policing of cryptomarkets extraordinarily difficult. Staples such as face-to-face “buy-bust” operations or raids on drug-dealing “hotspots” are impossible.

Gathering enough evidence to simply locate and identify online drug traders – let alone prove guilt in court beyond reasonable doubt – is a complex and resource-intensive process.

Another important, though less obvious factor that contributes to the resilience of online drug trading is the interdependence and mobility of users operating across multiple sites.

Drug vendors often post simultaneous listings on “seller pages” across different cryptomarkets. This allows them to continue trading if any individual site goes offline.

Digital ‘refugees’ find a home

Online consumers, on the other hand, appear to favour a single cryptomarket as a digital “home”. The strength of user affiliation towards individual cryptomarkets is demonstrated by the language employed to discuss movement between different sites.

When a cryptomarket is unexpectedly closed down, its users often describe themselves as “refugees” who are forced to “migrate” to different online spaces. Interestingly, the discourse on online migration often follows similar refrains with regard to offline population movements.

I migrated [a] couple weeks back … Lets make this a solid, safe and sounding community. Agora user [18/5/2014]

Digital migration strains the resources and infrastructure of destination cryptomarkets. As dealers struggle to meet increased demand, waiting times increase for their existing “native” customers. This creates potential for conflict between digital refugees and natives.

There are very worrying signs of the times ahead if the new marketplace is to [sic] inundated with the refugees. Silk Road 2.0 user [15/5/2014]

I have to say that I really really like Pandora but lately with all of the refugees, there has been many issues with downtime, timeouts and it has made it impossible for me to conduct business. Pandora user [13/4/2014]

Not all digital natives are hostile to newcomers, advocating instead support and tolerance towards refugees. This welcoming approach reflects solidarity between cryptomarket users in the face of ever-present and unpredictable external threats.

Intriguingly, the biggest blows to online drug trading have come not from law enforcement, but rather from fraudsters, hackers and other cybercriminals who populate the dark net.

Hacking attacks have breached the cyber-defences of numerous cryptomarkets, looting millions of Bitcoins left vulnerable in escrow accounts.

Several high profile cryptomarkets have also shut down unexpectedly after site administrators absconded with their users’ funds.

The strength, resilience and interdependence of cryptomarket communities allow them to continue functioning in the face of this uncertainty; cryptomarket users never know if or when their own digital homes will come under assault from the forces of the state or from cybercriminals.

They are all too aware that they could be the next digital refugees in search of a new home on the dark net.

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