Darknet markets are the tech-savvy drug dealers’ perfect environment for doing business in.
The online marketplaces akin to an eBay for illegal products, accessible only via Tor and trading using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, provide a shield protecting them from relative traceability.
As such, these darknet markets have become a thorn in law enforcements’ side, forcing them to adopt different methods of catching criminals than they had previously been used to.
No longer could an officer or agent go undercover on the streets to infiltrate a drug syndication network, they now had to go undercover online, making way for agents with enhanced cyber skills to come up the ranks quickly.
However, to catch a crook online is a relatively tricky matter. Law enforcement efforts to date in catching drug dealers on the darknet markets have been mildly effective at best.
Whenever criminals are caught, or darknet markets taken down, more appear in their place.
As of May, 2015, there have been 312 known arrests from incidents on various marketplaces, and for every marketplace that is taken down more will appear in its place.
The Silk Road bust, the first major marketplace takedown, feels like a long time ago, and darknet markets are still open today and apparently thriving.
The traditional way to uncover drug dealers on darknet markets
Law enforcement agents have generally gone about their business online in much the same way that they would have gone about the process in real life. This involves a lot of undercover work.
The officers play both sides of the story – some posing as buyers, and some posing as sellers.
With seller accounts, oftentimes the seller accounts have been seized from a legitimate seller who has been made to cooperate with the law in conjunction with reduced sentencing.
Many hours are spent cultivating online personas, working up the ranks and attempting to infiltrate the system.
Officers build friendships with sellers and admins of darknet markets to try and trick them into revealing information that leads to identification.
They then go about intercepting packages and raiding homes once they have enough evidence to target an individual.
Oftentimes they try to leverage this person to go one up in the chain.
However, these operations are time consuming, rely on people making mistakes, and as mentioned before, are only somewhat effective.
New methods in targeting the darknet markets
Law enforcement has conceded that their previous methods are not working effectively.
They need to work smarter and in different ways than previously attempted to go about disrupting the online drug trade.
The reason that undercover officers work so well on the streets is that people can be easily identified – a major flaw in online operations, when it takes far more time to positively ID a person.
Interpol has spent the past three years studying online marketplaces and cryptocurrencies, and even built a test marketplace themselves – with the intention of learning how to implement a marketplace to catch criminals in a web built entirely by the agents themselves.
Disrupting feedback mechanisms?
A recent study into new ways to flip darknet vendors on their heads posed the idea of officers disrupting the marketplace feedback system.
Darknet markets operate on a buyer review system.
This means that vendors with a higher percentage of positive reviews are indicative of a higher quality of wares, a speedy delivery, and a relatively easy transaction process.
The study insists that officers should target high-scoring vendors on darknet markets to reduce their overall percentage scores, leading to less buyers purchasing from them.
This is especially true of targeting vendors with high quality drugs – those with low quality drugs they should concentrate less on.
To do this, they will pose as buyers, purchase through the vendor, and then purposefully leaving negative feedback.
This will effectively reduce the quality of the goods circulating on the darknet markets and decrease seller profits.
Law enforcement agencies that are looking to catch crooks on the darknet markets need to employ disruptive techniques to successfully shake up the current systems.
It is clear that the current methods of doing business in online darknet markets are thriving, much to the chagrin of the agencies involved.
By conjuring up different ways to tackle the problem they may be more successful in their future endeavors.
People operating as vendors and buyers on the darknet markets will need to stay on their toes, as the future of illegal online trading is sure to remain a hot battleground for fighting the so called war on drugs.