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Buying guns and drugs on the dark web is 'as easy as buying on eBay' finds RAND Europe

The dark web is used as a black market for drugs and guns
The dark web is used as a black market for drugs and guns

Ahead of a panel discussion for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas next week, we spoke to two of the researchers who shone a light on the dark web.

The dark web is surprisingly easy to reach
The dark web is surprisingly easy to reach

Most people assume that the dark web is a mysterious place, only accessible by the tech savvy crowd or master criminals.

But researchers at European think tank RAND Europe, who will be discussing their findings at the Festival of Ideas next week, discovered they could access dark web markets selling guns and illegal drugs in a matter of minutes. And so could you.

Giacomo Persi Paoli is a research leader at RAND Europe in the defence, security and infrastructure group, where he leads the National Security and Resilience research portfolio. At a panel discussion next week for the Festival of Ideas - supported by the Cambridge Independent - Mr Paoli will give an introduction to his research into cryptomarkets – the black markets on the dark web – and reveal the size and scope of the dark web and what is available for trade, with a focus on illegal firearms.

He said his research revealed that buying firearms on the dark web was worryingly simple.

Stijn Hoorens RAND Europe
Stijn Hoorens RAND Europe

“I guess the most alarming thing for me was how easy it is,” he said.“It is relatively easy to do. The majority of people who want to buy a gun on the street wouldn’t know where to start unless they have connections to the criminal world. But, the dark web gives almost a real time access to a world wide supply of firearms that are available for people to purchase. “It took me five minutes on Google to find a guide on how to access the dark web. Five minutes later I had my account on a cryptomarket and could really easily find weapons to buy.

“It is very accessible. Nowadays there are many ways in which you can buy Bitcoins or cryptocurrencies and once you have those it is very easy to buy things from the dark web.”

Once someone has access to the dark web they can visit online marketplaces, which look similar to Ebay, although are obviously unconnected to the legal site, and start searching for illegal goods. And although the market for illegal firearms is quite small, around $1 million a month according to RAND Europe’s findings, the items sold could lead to serious consequences.

Paoli explains: “You can buy guns, fake documents, fake money and, here you go - you have the perfect terrorist kit ready for you. So it is really raising the risk level to a whole new dimension.”

Giacomo Persi Paoli
Giacomo Persi Paoli

The study found that the dark web has introduced a new platform enabling arms trafficking at a global scale. Despite the relatively limited value and volume of weapons traded on the dark web compared to either other products type, such as drugs, or to equivalent products trafficked offline, the potential impact on internal security is significant as demonstrated by recent ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist attacks in Europe. One such attack was the 2016 Munich shopping mall shooting, in which a lone gunman with no connections to terrorist groups killed nine people and injured 36 others. It showed that a person intent on mass killing no longer needs the backing of a large criminal group to access the necessary weapons, thanks to the dark web.

Paoli says: The gun involved in the Munich attack was confirmed as sold on the dark web. The gun started out as a stage prop somewhere in Central Europe, that was it’s status. But somewhere along the way it was converted into a live gun and sold on the dark web together with ammunition and then it was used in a shootout.

“There are also allegations that the rifles used in the Paris attacks were circulated on the dark web.”

These gun attacks in Europe were the catalyst for the launch of RAND Europe’s research.

“There was an increasing concern among law enforcement and policy makers about the role of the dark web may have made in facilitating illegal trades including firearms and of course in 2016 the increase wave pof incident including terrorist attacks that involved the use of firearms in europe needed a lot of attention on the topic,” says Paoli.

Studies in the past were anecdotal, rather than scientific. “For example a journalist tried to purchase a gun and were scammed or failed. We used this quite powerful tool able to download primary data from the dark web and run our analysis.

“We didn’t buy anything or communicate with anybody or engage with any user we just downloaded the data to get a sense of what is offered for sale at what price from where and going where.”

The researchers used a software tool, called a ‘scraper’ to download primary data form eight market places on the dark web so they could analyse what was being offered for sale and how much it cost.

They discovered the types of firearms were mainly handguns, rather than rifles, possibly due to the fact they are easier to ship or post. But they differ in quality from guns available on the street.

“In the UK if you had 1000 pounds to spend on the street you could probably buy an illegal revolver of the early 1900s because that’s the only thing you can find. But on the dark web for the same amount of money you can get a brand new automatic pistol. The quality of what you can get is higher.

“Right after the sidearms the most commonly traded item are digital files. One type of file is 3D models for people to print a gun at home. The other digital goods are manuals and tutorials that explain how to convert a prop gun into a real gun.”

He explains that: “You can print those parts of the gun you need to replace to make a gun untraceable. The way a gun is normally traced is through serial numbers printed on certain parts of the gun. If you change those parts with ones you have printed yourself the gun becomes untraceable.”

A second study was carried out by RAND Europe, this time into the sale of illegal drugs on the dark web. This research was led by Stijn Hoorens, head of their Brussels Office and an associate director of RAND Europe. His research interests are broad, but most of his work has revolved around issues related to illicit markets, security, demographic issues, employment, and skills.

As part of the panel discussion at the Festival of Ideas next week, Mr Hoorens will be revealing how the dark web has facilitated the trade in illicit drugs and how the findings converge and differ between firearms and drugs.

The illegal drugs market was by far the biggest on the dark web, discovered researchers, with about 71 per cent of all vendors selling drugs. However, Mr Hoorens explains the amount sold was niche compared with drugs sold in traditional street deals offline.

“We found it is not a huge facilitator of international drug trade, it is just offering a certain target group access to illicit products.

“It was just about 12 million Euros a month, which some consider a lot. If you compare it to the offline market for drugs it is peanuts. The European drug market is two billion Euros a month on average, offline.”

The people who buy drugs on the dark web are believed to be “predominantly male between 20s and 40s, and relatively highly educated,” says Hoorens.

The majority of drug purchases over the dark web during the research period were less than $100, leading researchers to conclude they were for social use rather than wholesale dealing. So what is the attraction of buying from the dark web rather than a traditional dealer?

“It is relatively safe,” reveals Hoorens. “As a buyer you don’t have to go out on the street market and expose yourself to potential violence to purchase these products. You do it behind your desk and they arrive on your doormat a few days later.

“I know some scholars have looked at this from a harm reduction perspective and said we shouldn’t completely dismiss the dark web as dangerous and something we don’t want because there is a harm reduction element to this.”

In fact, Professor of Criminology Judith Aldridge will be arguing this point at the panel for the Festival of Ideas discussion on the dark web. She is the author of over 80 publications in the drugs field; 19 of these on ‘darknet’ drug markets.

Hoorens adds: “Because it is anonymous there is a lot of discussion about how to safely use products and there is high scrutiny of the quality of the products and the vendors. There is a similar rating system to some of the clear web markets, like Ebay. If people deliver products that don’t meet the standards then they don’t do well. Vendors have an incentive to keep their feedback rating as high as possible. Much of the dark web trade is based on trust.”

The panel will also hear from Steve Welsh is a senior manager at the National Crime Agency in the UK who heads up the Dark Web Intelligence Collection and Exploitation department. He will be giving an insight into the evolving threat of dark web markets and sharing some of the UK’s success in combating it with international partners.

In conclusion, Hoorens says: “Law enforcement agencies that try to curb these markets can use a combination of traditional surveillance operations, postal detection and interception during shipping, and online detection and tracking of the cryptomarkets.”

For more details on all the events taking place during the Festival of Ideas, please visit www.festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk

“Shining a light on the dark web”, Monday, October 15: 6:00pm - 7:15pm

St John’s College Old Divinity School, All Saints Passage, CB2 1TP. Tickets: free.

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