When the most recent photos released by drug vendors from darknet markets captured the eye of the public, many were certain that there would be repercussions for the seemingly careless acts of defiance disguised as product advertising.
In their displays of their illegal wares, some of these online drug vendors forgot to remove or alter some crucial bit of information which could be instrumental in pointing out their exact locations based on the uploaded photos.
“Dealers Virtually Shared a Digital Map” – Harvard Seniors
EXIF is data that attaches to images taken by smartphones and digital cameras. This is especially so if the said device(s) feature in in-built GPS feature. Among the data tagged in the photos include geolocation information that is detailed enough to pinpoint exact locations based on the photographs.
Harvard seniors Michael Rose and Paul Lisker elucidate that this is basically the kind of information any discerning drug dealer from the darknet markets would want to keep hidden.
By posting pictures of their illicit goods with accurate location data, they are effectively aiding the authorities to track them down. According to Rose, the accuracy of the data points is enough to pinpoint an exact house, let alone a location.
North America and Europe Lead in the Number of Online Drug Vendors
According to findings posted on Medium by the two Harvard researchers when they plotted the locations scraped from posted photographs, they indicated that most of the darknet markets were based in Europe and North America.
The data was slightly altered to within a mile of accuracy for privacy reasons. Differently colored spots represented different online drug markets.
Lisker and Rose relied on data dug up from the Black-Market Archives, the brainchild of an independent researcher only known by the moniker Gwern. The two Harvard seniors conducted the research as part of a project on privacy and technology.
The site proved an invaluable resource as it featured data from popular darknet markets from as far back as late 2013.
Tor Does Not Always Suffice When it Comes to Online Anonymity
Using a computer script they wrote, the two Harvard seniors were able to dig up an estimated 7.5 million photographs from darknet markets. Of these, about 2,300 featured location data. However, only 229 photos were tagged from unique locations.
Michael Rose was surprised to see that some of the information came from well-established darknet markets which he had suspected would automatically strip such information to protect the anonymity of the user.
Only a small percentage of location data was the result of forgetful drug vendors, however.
One notable case was that of the recently shut down drug market, Agora. 52 of the 229 unique geotagged images came from what was one of the most popular darknet markets.
In a curious turn of events, the photographs with unique location data began to disappear from Agora’s listings in the Black-Market Archives on March 18, 2014. According to Rose, this is when darknet markets began to realize their colossal blunder.
Geotagged Photographs on Black Markets are Indicators of Carelessness
Rose points out that the existence of photographs with accurate information data is an indicator of failure from both the sellers and the darknet markets involved.
However, their post on Medium suggests that the inclusion of location data to the photos posted on various darknet markets could indeed be purposeful, and a way to misdirect or manipulate the authorities by pointing them in the wrong direction.
Despite all, Rose and Lisker advise the authorities not to be too enthused as finding any useful photographs is hard and therefore, it is not the most effective way to curb the sale of illicit drugs on darknet markets.