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Opinion: A new drug trade is hiding in the underbelly of the internet

We need to shine a light on the dark depths of the internet to reach people where they buy, sell and discuss drugs.

Tony Duffin CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project

WE LIVE DIFFERENTLY than we did two decades ago. Our day-to-day lives are increasingly conducted digitally and online and set to become more so – 65% of Irish households already have broadband and Ireland is set to be one of the most digitally engaged countries in the world by 2015.

We can now buy most of our everyday purchases online, at any time, without ever leaving our home. It is estimated that by 2016 7% of Ireland’s total consumer spending will be done online.

Since online business got serious in the 1990s (Amazon sold its first book online in 1995) we increasingly buy and sell without any face-to-face or even human contact. The move to an online environment was perhaps a natural evolution, although one which happened more slowly than might originally have been anticipated. It’s not hard to see why online trading has been a successful model. It benefits both business and consumers – freeing businesses from the overheads associated with location-based selling, (such as high street outlets) and giving consumers enhanced choice and flexibility.

And our lives as consumers are further reinforced by our online interactions – we are advertised to as we engage more and more online with retail and social networking. We seek consumer and even professional advice online.

Invisible to the average web search

Despite this growing familiarity with the online environment, many are unaware that there is a side to the World Wide Web that is not accessed by their usual search engines. The ‘Deep Web’ is invisible to the average web search. Typically, search engines rely on programmes that follow and analyse the hyperlinks that tie the web together. However, this misses a lot – there are millions of databases attached to the web that are not typically retrievable through this method. Think of a web search like dragging a net through the ocean – while you pick up a lot, you also miss a lot. And the Deep Web is massive; several times larger than the web trawled by search engines.

Just like the web we know, this hidden side of the internet offers content, and indeed retail services – but only to those who know what they are looking for, and how to look. Couple this with browsers which provide anonymity, like Tor, and currencies which allow difficult to trace transactions, such as bitcoin, and the potential for criminality is obvious.

The Dark Net

The ‘Dark Net’ describes those parts of the Deep Web where criminal activity takes place. Unsurprisingly, the trade in illicit drugs has established a firm foothold. The Dark Net site Silk Road came to public prominence last year as a marketplace for drugs (and other illegal contraband and services). When Silk Road was shut down in October 2013, it was quickly replaced.

And, recently, the Dark Net got its very own search engine – Grams. Users can now easily search the dark web for illicit goods, which they can then purchase anonymously. It is widely recognised that the Dark Net is, at the very least, impractical to police. The anonymity conferred by the online environment, combined with the sheer volume of illegitimate online trade makes effective policing extremely hard.

Tim Bingham, an Irish researcher who has published peer reviewed research on the online drugs market notes:

There is a shift towards global availability of all drugs via online drug marketplaces. By March 2012 there were 150,000 registered users on the Silk Road site. Although the original Silk Road was seized, there is now significantly more competition on the ‘hidden web’ than when it was closed. I expect that 2014 is going to be another year of development in this area. At this point, wholesale supply can be had online – it’s a huge challenge for law enforcement.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the relative ease and anonymity of online transactions facilitate illicit trade as much as mainstream commerce.

The shift towards online retailing

However, we must not make the common mistake of being distracted by the technology, when it is the consequences facilitated by that technology that are the real concern. There is currently a large online market for drugs, representing a change from traditional methods of buying and selling in this market. In the recently published Global Drugs Survey, 10.7% of Irish respondents reported as having bought drugs on the internet.

The fact that the market is undergoing the shift towards online retailing that we have seen in other goods and services means we must now ask questions in relation to how we formulate drug policy.

At a broad level, we can ask if the systems we have for controlling supply are still fit for purpose. Rather than large amounts of narcotics being smuggled in by organised criminals for sale in the country, it is now the case that a proportion of the trade is comprised of online purchases which are subsequently dispatched to individual consumers through the postal system.

At a more focused level, those who provide direct services to drug users need to make sure that their service offerings meet the needs of their clients.

The next generation of problematic drug users will have grown up with the internet, will be conversant with the Dark Net and will view online commerce as the norm rather than the exception. And when they perceive that their drug use is problematic, they will look for help online. As Tim Bingham notes:

From my experience and knowledge of speaking to people on sites on the dark net, people are using these sites not just to trade, but to ask peers for help and advice related to drug consumption. Many of these people may be isolated from mainstream services – the very reason they use these sites is to preserve their anonymity. There is a clear need to ensure that good quality advice and signposting to reputable services are available on sites on the ‘hidden web’.

There are already indications that the way people are accessing drug services when they have a problem is changing – referrals now come through online sources, like email or Facebook, as well as through more traditional routes. It can be expected that this number will rise in the future.

The point is that a change in trading patterns doesn’t just have ramifications for drug users and dealers. It also forces service providers that work with drug users to ensure that their services are fit for purpose. Like any other service, those providing healthcare must be flexible in providing an accessible service to their clients. Experience and evidence tells us that regardless of the preventative systems and structures that are in place, a drug free society is very much an aspirational, rather than realistic, goal.

The plain fact is that people use drugs, and will continue to do so. The policy question is that of how societies can best organise to manage the associated risks. And part of answering this question will mean shining some light on the dark depths of the internet, to reach people where they buy, sell and discuss drugs.

Tony Duffin is the Director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project. Ana Liffey provide social and medical services to over 3000 individuals every year, most of whom use drugs problematically. In addition to this, Ana Liffey run a number of online and digital services, including the aldp.ie and drugs.ie websites. You can contact Ana Liffey on Facebook, Twitter, and at info@aldp.ie.

Read: Crimes ‘slipping through the net’ due to lack of garda resources

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About the author:

Tony Duffin  / CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project

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