As law enforcement increasingly cracks down on centralized dark-web markets, online narcotics dealers are migrating to encrypted messing apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, according to a new report from the Independent.
Citing the findings of an anonymous dark web researcher, the report says that online drug dealers are advertising their illicit Telegram channels through graffiti markers spray-painted near transport hubs and other public places.
Additionally, criminals are using automated chat bots to communicate with potential customers – a tactic that both enhances convenience and diverts liability. The researcher made these discoveries after infiltrating several drug-dealing channels on Telegram.
More Cops than Criminals on the Dark Web?
Dealers’ migration to encrypted messaging apps comes in the wake of multiple dark-web market takedowns that have made headlines in the last couple of years. Beyond the dismantling of Silk Road, the seminal dark-web marketplace, in 2013, law enforcement shut down copycat sites Alphabay and Hansa Market in the summer of 2017.
While dark-web transactions plummeted by 60 percent after the Alphabay and Hansa takedowns, a 2018 analysis of the cyber-underworld economy by blockchain forensics firm Chainalysis found that dark-web market activity doubled in 2018, with over $600 million in bitcoin flowing to illegal sites.
Chainalysis’ research found that the 2017 dark-web market takedowns redirected illicit activity to a Russian-language dark market called Hydra. To date, Hydra has received over $780 million in bitcoin.
Despite the uptick in transactions, people with knowledge of the cybercriminal economy are skeptical of the dark web’s staying power as an underworld hub. According to Russian businessman and convicted cybercriminal Pavel Vrublevsky:
“There are more cops than criminals on the dark web.”
Illustrating this point is the Hansa case, where the Dutch National Police secretly controlled the dark-web marketplace for a month before Europol dropped the hammer on unsuspecting users. There is also lingering chatter in the cyber-underworld that Dream Market, another popular dark-website, has been compromised by law enforcement.
Distributed Model of Criminality Relies on Apps Like Telegram
Chainalysis found that law enforcement’s dismantling of centralized dark-web marketplaces has given way to a “distributed model” of darknet market activity that relies on encrypted messaging apps.
Beyond Telegram, the Chainalysis report identified Facebook’s WhatsApp as another popular platform to execute illegal transactions. According to Chainalysis:
“When conducted through these apps, transaction activity is decentralized and person-to-person; there’s little risk that law enforcement will shut down the entire network by closing a website.”
Civil Liberties Tradeoff for Encrypted Apps Like WhatsApp
The growing use of encrypted messaging apps by the cyber-underworld has ignited a debate about privacy and whether governments should demand that these platforms offer law enforcement and intelligence services a “backdoor” to decrypt messages.
In Australia, legislators passed a controversial bill last December that allows the country’s law enforcement agencies to demand access to end-to-end encrypted digital communications. But privacy advocates have raised concerns about Australia’s approach.
One senior cybersecurity executive in Washington, D.C. spoke to CCN.com on a condition of anonymity and said that these proposed backdoors:
“[L]eave the courts and the warrant approval process the only mechanism for keeping private information private. We’ve seen the enormous appetites of both private and government entities for data collection. Encryption and zero-trust security models provide a clear barrier to further encroachment upon the civil rights of digital citizens. Backdoors are antithetical to the very idea of privacy, representing a clear attempt to use technology as a means of engineering around our constitution.”
So as cyber-enabled drug dealers increasingly migrate to encrypted, peer-to-peer messaging apps, decentralized black markets are a tradeoff society must accept to preserve its civil liberties in the digital realm.