Online drug marketplaces on the "dark web" have begun to resemble traditional organised crime, according to the latest findings from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) based at the University of NSW. And Australian drug dealers are the most prevalent users of this system per capita than any other nationality.
The NDARC's Drugs Trend Project, which has been monitoring dark web marketplaces since 2013, reports an emergence in extortion, server attacks and conflict over digital territory between online marketplaces and third parties over the past 12 months.
The "dark web" refers to a large collection of websites that use services to hide their server locations. To find these websites, users must also install anonymising programs such as Tor on their computers, creating a portion of the Internet where user exchanges, activities and purchases cannot be traced to specific computers or people.
"Because of the anonymising features of the Tor network, there is no concern for legality," said NDARC research officer Joe Van Buskirk. "Any sort of substances can be sold."
According to the research the most widely available drug on the dark web is cannabis, followed by pharmaceuticals and MDMA (ecstasy).
Largely, dark web drug stores take the form of online marketplaces, facilitating the sale of drugs from multiple retailers for a cut of the price.
"Marketplaces on the dark net operate in a very similar way to eBay," said Mr Van Buskirk. "They have a feedback system where both buyers and retailers are rated on the efficiency of the transaction, and the quality of the substance," he said.
A long-term user of dark web marketplaces said she was initially shocked by the high functionality of these websites.
"Going on for the first time I was surprised by how legitimate these websites look, they look like eBay," she said. "I would think anyone who is determined to buy drugs online could do it with relative ease," she said.
As awareness of dark web marketplaces grows, so too are buyer and retailer numbers, said Mr Van Buskirk.
The FBI estimated by the time of its closure, the original dark web drug marketplace, Silk Road, generated $US79.8 million for the website's founder Ross Ulbricht. In February 2015, Evolution, the largest marketplace on the dark web at that time, suddenly shutdown with moderators suspected of taking an estimated $12 million of retailer and buyer money being processed through Evolution's transaction system.
Mr Van Buskirk said that while "exit scams" such as Evolution's are common in the dark web's history, extortion by third parties began to emerge only last year.
"Third parties are coming on to marketplaces and making a digital threat to take down the marketplace temporarily, they continue these attacks until the marketplace pays them money. They also blackmail moderators with identifying information, and extort money out of them," he said.
A bout of server attacks early last year made many marketplaces inaccessible to retailers and buyers. While marketplaces have stabilised in the past six months, Van Buskirk suspects extortion is still taking place but is "being managed differently." He said it is difficult to identify who third-party extortionists might be.
"It is similar to an organised crime approach that happens in real world crime networks. But really, it could be anyone who has a good knowledge of technology," he said.
Unlike the original Silk Road, which banned the sale of stolen credit cards and weapons, Mr Van Buskirk said large dark web marketplaces have expanded their sales beyond illicit substances.
"As more people see how much money can be made, more opportunistic methods are being used. And that can be seen in the range of products too," he said.
NSW's Drug Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Tony Cooke, said there is no doubt that online drug retailers have involvement with organised crime networks.
"It is another means by which organised crime sells drugs into the community," he said.
The penalties for buying and selling drugs online are the same as when drugs are bought and sold in other ways.
"Whilst drugs and other illicit commodities are sold over the Internet, they still need to be sent and delivered. The NSW Police Force along with partner agencies interdict where possible."
Dark web drug facts from NDARC
- Australians are the most represented nationality of drug retailers on the dark web proportional to population
- 10% of surveyed regular psychostimulant drug users had bought drugs over the dark web in the past year
- Those purchasing drugs over the dark web were more likely to be male and under the age of 25
- Psychostimulant users buying off the dark web tended to use a greater variety of drugs at a greater frequency compared to other users.