Cryptomarkets increasingly infuse illicit drug trade—study
Cryptomarkets—marketplaces on the dark web that can facilitate the sale of illicit goods between vendors and buyers—are proving to be attractive alternatives to traditional in-person drug dealing, according to Simon Fraser university researchers, who say machine learning and tracking markets through web crawlers may help curb the growing trend.
According to their research, drug revenues for cryptomarkets and vendors increased by 80 percent from 2013-2021, showing a significant growth in the drug-cryptomarket ecosystem.
“Cryptomarkets, which are typically short-lived sites that appear and shut down regularly, can be used as an alternative method to access these products,” says SFU criminology professor Richard Frank, director of the International CyberCrime Research Centre at SFU. Frank is also a panelist on the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on Public Safety in the Digital Age, which released its report Vulnerable Connections, today. He is also a creator of the Dark Crawler, a tool for collecting and analyzing data from the Internet as well as the dark web, an unindexed, encrypted and anonymous section of the internet accessed using special software and able to obscure details and identities.
“With lower prices, contactless transactions, and a large variety of drug products available in varying quantities for the buyer’s perusal, it becomes an attractive alternative for the illicit trade.”
To better understand the products available on the cryptomarket drug system and identify factors that encourage or discourage vendors from shipping globally, researchers collected product information from eight large and notable cryptomarkets between June 2021 and January 2022.
Researchers, who presented their findings at a recent international conference on system sciences, reported an estimated 16.8 tons of drug products trafficked for $234.7 million across the eight cryptomarkets, with the most popular drugs being stimulants, cannabis, opiods and benzodiazepines.
They also found that larger quantities and less expensive items were more likely to be shipped globally, while others were only shipped domestically, likely due to a perceived increase in risk with global delivery.
“Cryptomarkets have grown and will likely continue to do so, but some aspects of the trade may become less visible, such as if vendors choose to move to invite-only chat platforms,” says Shu Liu, a researcher on Frank’s team responsible for collecting and analyzing data. “It can be difficult for law enforcement agencies to clampdown on international cryptomarket drug trade, but developing and testing new tools and techniques will increase the chances of illicit imports being intercepted by authorities as they go through the mail.”
Frank says the cryptomarket ecosystem is expected to facilitate an increasing amount of illicit goods and continue growing in the coming years.
“Machine learning may become a solution to better search and identify drug packages during the shipping process, based on the characteristics of drug packages. With more packages being seized, vendors may decide to avoid shipping globally because of heightened risk and potential financial loss.”
Further research on cryptomarkets will help researchers learn more about how to deter their activity. The researchers will continue to track them over time using web crawlers to gain a clearer understanding of the number and quantity of wholesale products trafficked, including custom listings, which are often harder to find.