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Telegram: Crypto’s Top Chat App Has Become a Favorite of the Drug Trade 

Last Updated October 11, 2023 4:18 PM
Josh Adams
Last Updated October 11, 2023 4:18 PM
Key Takeaways
  • Buying drugs online with cryptocurrency has been a staple of the internet for at least a decade.
  • Users are moving away from darkweb marketplaces to social media to make their purchases.
  • However, even with crypto, things aren’t as private as you think.

Buying drugs used to be a lot simpler. But for over a decade, drug dealers and users have been using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC) to facilitate their trade. However, most online drug deals have moved away from darkweb marketplaces and are landing a little closer to home.

According to the same UN report  from July 2023, self-reported purchases of drugs on the darkweb actually declined for the first time in 2022 after years of an upward trend. But, that has created a gap for those still wanting to participate in this illegal trade, leaving Telegram as the unwitting recipient of those looking to buy drugs with cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency & Telegram Aren’t Anonymous

Telegram has long been the home of crypto users and advocates, with the app being the default mode of communication for those in the community. In the early days, cryptocurrency quickly gained popularity for drug purchases, making Telegram’s role as a hub for drug trading unsurprising.

A study  cited in the UN report found that about one-tenth of all internet-using drug consumers aged 15–25 bought drugs online. Most online purchases (69 percent in the United States and 86 percent in Spain) were made via social media platforms like Telegram, with the remainder on darknet markets. Although, that doesn’t necessarily mean the drug-buying is a private affair.

 

Telegram is full of channels and groups where users can buy drugs.
Telegram is full of groups, each with thousands of members, where users can purchase drugs using cryptocurrency. Source: Telegram

Contrary to popular perception, transactions on most public blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum (ETH) are trackable by law enforcement and the general public. Although it requires some technical know-how to do.

Furthermore, on-chain analysis tools like Chainalysis have been pitching their services to governments for years. In February 2022, the US announced its Virtual Asset Exploitation Unit (VAXU), a subsection of the FBI focused on blockchain analysis and virtual asset seizure. Virtually every other major economy has started similar programs. 

The rise of blockchain investigators is unlikely to slow down. Chainalysis told the New York Times  that its revenue had increased by 70% over 2022, despite the market downturn. UN agencies are trying to plug the gap in knowledge, too, and are offering training  on cryptocurrencies and darknet investigations to local law enforcement. 

The risk is that retroactive investigations on the blockchain may reveal historical instances of drug trading, despite how private your messenger app is.

Telegram Isn’t the Privacy Panacea

There are reasons to be worried about its explosion of popularity. Privacy isn’t by default on Telegram, despite what many believe.

In order to enable end-to-end encryption—where only the sender and intended recipient of a message can read it—users must enable its “Secret Chat” mode. There is also worryingly little indication of this feature, which also auto-deletes messages, unless you know where to look.

Without end-to-end encryption, there is a risk that your wallet address ends up implicating you in illegal activity. Telegram’s privacy policy  states that it uses your non-encrypted data to show you ads and only stores data that “Telegram needs to function.” A worryingly broad excuse.

However, whilst the app still doesn’t share direct contents of your messages when in “Secret Chat” mode, Telegram still collects your IP address and phone number. Both data points can be damning when collected with other incriminating evidence—including blockchain analysis.

When CCN contacted Telegram, its team said it “uses a combination of proactive monitoring of public spaces and user reports to remove content promoting the sale of drugs.” Thousands of such groups and channels are removed each month, said a spokesperson.

There is also the cold, hard reality that if law enforcement gains access to your phone, there is a fair chance that they will be able to access to its contents—including your drug-related messages. Unless they were set to auto-delete, of course. 

The Trend Is Likely to Continue

Telegram’s lack of privacy-by-default and the increasing focus on blockchain analysis make buying drugs over the app a risky proposition. But that hasn’t stopped many, and the trend of using crypto to buy drugs on social media is likely to continue.

Telegram has exploded in popularity in recent years.
Number of monthly active Telegram users worldwide from March 2014 to November 2022. Source: Statistica.

According to the UN report, the use of social media like Telegram to buy drugs correlates strongly with age. The youngest age group (16 to 24) showed a strong preference for using social media to buy drugs, while those aged 25 to 34 tended to favor the dark web for drug purchases. 

Telegram’s reliance on human moderation and community reporting will mean there will be no widespread cleansing of the platform anytime soon. Its recent integration with crypto wallets could mean purchasing psychoactive substances becomes easier, and not harder. Just don’t bet against anybody finding out.

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