Buying illegal drugs online is as easy as a dive into the “Deep Web.” An eBay auction or an Amazon purchase is so well-documented that it seems utterly impossible to go that route, but there is an equivalent site operating in the Deep Web (also called the Deepnet, the Invisible Web, the Undernet or the hidden Web) which does just that. Rogue online pharmacists and designer drug suppliers may as well be announcing their purchases through a megaphone in comparison to what happens in the hidden underbelly of the Internet. It’s been reported in the media around the world, from the San Francisco Chronicle to sites in New Zealand and the UK, and represents a growing concern.
What is the Deep Web?
The Internet you use is merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of the content online is hidden in unseen territory, impossible to access through Google, Yahoo or Bing. Ordinarily, Internet searches have been compared to dragging a net across the surface of the ocean: while a lot is caught inside, the vast majority waits in the dark recesses below. People access the Deep Web using the online anonymity software TOR, making users and their locations extremely difficult to track. Some researchers believe the Deep Web is almost three times the size of the standard Web.
From the Revolutionary to the Downright Disgusting
The Deep Web is not a nice place. It contains the things people want to stay hidden, and operates on Bitcoins – an anonymous currency used for online transactions. This makes the Deep Web a seething pit of revolutionaries, terrorists, anarchists, pedophiles, assassins, thieves and drug dealers, going about their nefarious business under the cloak of multiple anonymity measures. The Deep Web has sites just like the regular Internet, although they look like anachronistic remnants of the GeoCities days, and one of these is the eBay-like trading network called Silk Road, where users can load up on illegal drugs.
Some users reportedly prefer using the site because it removes issues with face-to-face meetings. Packages are delivered to the user’s homes by delivery companies who unwittingly become drug mules in the scheme.
Are There Any Specific Dangers?
The dangers of illegal drugs are well known and obviously still a serious concern with Silk Road transactions, but the actual act of purchasing could open the users up to more dangers. Although there are ratings systems, drug dealers are known for cutting illegal drugs with other substances in a bid to save money, and the anonymity of the site multiplies this risk. Even if the particular seller has positive feedback, there is no way to tell if he or she has a new supplier or has recently started cutting the drugs with more potentially dangerous substances.
Is There Any Way to Stop It?
The sophisticated encryption techniques used by these criminals and users of the Deep Web present evidence problems for law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean it’s untraceable. There is nothing to stop a DEA agent from setting up a Silk Road seller account and advertising non-existent illicit drugs. Users who ordered from that agent would be greeted by a SWAT team, and they’d have given away their address.
The apparently anonymous currency, the Bitcoin, is actually easier to trace than it might seem. Each transaction is recorded on a public log, and while it is purchased anonymously, law enforcement groups have software capable of weeding out specific users. In the same sense, while the TOR network essentially offers users anonymity, there are other ways to determine the user’s location. The only potential issue is that with so much time going into catching a single user, smaller transactions often slip through the net.
Although most people are well aware that some online pharmacies distribute to people without a prescription and that packages labeled “bath salts” may be anything but, Silk Road and the Deep Web present a much more complex set of issues. The existing risks of illegal drugs are multiplied because the site gives drug dealers anonymity, limiting the potential consequences for a bad batch. While the currency is ultimately traceable, successful purchases are made every day. As with the ever-changing legislation for designer drugs, one success for law enforcement on the Deep Web inevitably leads to dealers altering their methods and getting dangerous substances back into our communities.