dna exclusive: Illegal drugs home delivered…and our cops are clueless
Sunday, Jun 16, 2013, 6:44 IST | Agency: DNA
You can order banned drugs and other illegal items directly to your home from underground marketplace Silk Road. So why haven't law enforcement agencies heard about this yet?
The homepage of Silk Road, an underground marketplace for everything illegal.
Some time last month, a khaki-clad Indian postal services officer delivered a regular 10x4 business envelope to 24-year-old Shikhar’s* door in a city not too far away from Mumbai.
Inside, the envelope was a double vacuum-sealed package with five LSD stamps. For the uninitiated, LSD is a banned, semi-synthetic, psychedelic drug known for psychological effects that include hallucinations and an altered sense of time. It is colloquially referred to as acid.
Since when has India Post become the courier of drugs to your doorstep?
The one-stop shop
To be fair, India Post is not to be blamed. LSD is colorless, odourless and tasteless and its doses are usually found on tiny squares of absorbent paper which is why it is easy to conceal and transmit. The consignment was ordered by Shikhar’s friend Ruhaan* from online marketplace Silk Road, an underground site from where you can purchase everything from drugs to electronics to guns and fake passports.
Ruhaan stumbled upon Silk Road about six months ago while surfing the web. “The first time I logged on, I felt like I was in a futuristic dream. It was like something I’d read about in a crime/science fiction novel. It guaranteed, top quality drugs delivered home,” he says.
He monitored the site for months, understood the supply chain and transaction system and then purchased the virtual currency bitcoin (at the rate of $100) that is the only means of purchasing anything on the site.
When Ruhaan was confident that he couldn’t be traced if he bought anything illegal, he identified a ‘trusted’ seller, added ‘LSD stamps’ to his shopping cart, hit the ‘check out’ button, sent his address to the seller through PGP encryption (a way to hide data online used by all agencies to transfer secret data/information) and paid with his bitcoin.
Three weeks later, his friend handed him the much-anticipated envelope. “Till it arrived in my hands, it (online black market) was still science fiction,” Ruhaan said. Now, it’s clear it works. Besides it’s quality stuff; 94% purity, he says.
“The best part is that it arrived from Royal Post, UK, to EMS, India, which means no one signed for a parcel, which also means there is no incriminating evidence,” he adds.
Unlike in the US, LSD is not a street drug in India. It is relatively difficult to find a dealer who sells LSD as compared to one who sells hash or weed. In India, depending on the dealer, the location and the purity, one LSD stamp can cost between Rs 800 to Rs 1700.
On Silk Route, our source bought five LSD stamps of 92 per cent purity for 1 Bitcoin (worth Rs 5,300 at the time). That works out to Rs 1,060 a stamp.
Welcome to the dark web
How is this online site possible?
About a decade ago, the United States Naval Research Laboratory needed a system to protect their communications from being read online.
The lab, along with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a browser known as Tor (The Onion Router) that ensures that anyone trying to monitor data or communication online will fail to determine the identity or location of the sender.
Seven years ago, Tor became an independent nonprofit organisation. It is now a network used by millions across the world — from journalists, the military, activists and Chinese bloggers — who want to communicate anonymously on the Internet.
Tor doesn’t only conceal individuals from internet surveillance. It also lets people publish entire websites while guaranteeing complete anonymity. It is therefore no surprise that many enterprising individuals quickly used Tor to set up a booming online market of all things illegal. Besides Silk Road, there is one called BlackMarket Reloaded or BMR.
Assault rifles, forged US/UK/EU passports, marijuana lollypops, any variety of psychedelic drugs and even assassins, are all available on these sites that millions across the world have been accessing for the past two years using Tor browsers.
“The key difference between Silk Road and other marketplaces is that it provides reasonably good guarantees of anonymity to both sellers and buyers (and of course marketplace operators) by relying on existing technology,” Dr Nicolas Christin, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon university’s cyber-security research centre, told dna. In 2012, Christin monitored activity on Silk Road for six months.
Joining Silk Road is simple. Download the Tor browser from the Tor website and search for the ‘Silk Road url’. Click on the link and register yourself. The home page has badly-shot photos of the latest deals; on the left are categories to choose from – drugs, opioids, stimulants, ecstasy, cannabis, prescription, psychedelics, forgeries, drug paraphernalia, custom order, art, books etc. The site also has forums where members discuss everything from bitcoins (the virtual currency used for transactions) to tips on safe packaging and dealer authenticity.
It’s not a scam
Once you are in, it’s hard to believe that Silk Road isn’t a scam. The site works just like any other online marketplace. For example, sellers are rated by buyers on the basis of their reputations. “If a seller decides to dupe one buyer and if the buyer gives a bad review then the seller’s business is gone,” says Ruhaan.
It also caters for those worried about losing their money. “The site has an escrow system (a trusted middleman). The buyer transfers bitcoins into an escrow account after which the seller ships the goods. When the buyer receives the parcel, he just has to log in and release the money in the escrow,” explains Ruhaan.
dna made several attempts to get in touch with Tor developers over the past month to understand their system and to get more clarity on the anonymity of the network. But despite several attempts to contact them, the developers, were unavailable.
However, a GQ UK story on Silk Road quoted Runa Sandvik, a London-based Tor developer, as saying that Tor is privacy by design. “The same functionality that protects users in China or Iran from oppressive governments protects people using Silk Road. We work with the law-enforcement agencies to make sure they know how Tor works, what it can and cannot do, but we also make it very clear that we can’t trace users ourselves.
Configured correctly, there’s nothing you can really do.”
The anonymity of buyers and sellers is guaranteed say experts. As long as users maintain certain precautions, it is relatively hard to trace them, says Dr Christin. “There is no way the technology will let you down. The only way you get caught is if you make a mistake and don’t take enough precautions,” says Kiran Jonnalagadda, founder of hasgeek.com.
Law enforcement clueless
According to Christin’s research, the transaction volume and number of sellers on Silk Road roughly doubled just in the first half of 2012. “Sellers went from about 300 to 550, for instance. We estimated cumulative revenue of all transactions to about $1.2 million per month and the site creator, who makes roughly 7% in commission, generated about $92,000 at that time” he told dna in an email interview.
Several sellers on Silk Road claim to be located in India. The most popular one goes by the name Gotmilk. The seller’s profile says s/he is ranked in the top 5% sellers on the site. When dna checked, s/he had 866 fans, positive feedback from over 300 transactions.
The profile also says: “On Silk Road there are many Indians selling really cheap benzos.
Be careful you are likely to get what you pay for. Gotmilk is EX-PAT managed, we are not Indians therefore we demand FDA licensed distributors...”
This brings us to enforcement agencies.
When the Silk Road story broke in the US in late 2011, Senator Chuck Schumer told a press conference: “Literally, it allows buyers and users to sell illegal drugs online, including heroin, cocaine, and meth, and users do sell by hiding their identity through a program that makes them virtually untraceable. It’s a certifiable one-stop shop for illegal drugs that represents the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen. It’s more brazen than anything else by light years.”
In the past 18 months, law enforcement agencies in Australia, US, and UK have been quoted in the international media admitting that they were investigating activities on Silk Road. But if booming business on the site is any indicator, law enforcement agencies haven’t been very successful in stopping anything.
In India, our law enforcement agencies, hot on the chase of spot-fixers and couples who hold hands in public, don’t seem to have a clue about Silk Road or BMR.
dna could not get in touch with Mumbai Police joint commissioner Himanshu Roy despite making several attempts. But when we asked Rohit Katiyar, the zonal director of the Narcotics Control Bureau, if he had heard of Silk Road or BMR, Katiyar was very frank. “To be honest, I’ve never heard about these sites. As per my knowledge, we’ve never received any information about such sites either,” he said.
Given that in theory, you can order guns and other terror-related items from Silk Road and BMR, we hope our law enforcement agencies won’t be clueless for very long.
*some names have been changed to protect identity.
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