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Sunday, June 16, 2013

dna exclusive: Illegal drugs home delivered…and our cops are clueless

dna exclusive: Illegal drugs home delivered…and our cops are clueless
Sunday, Jun 16, 2013, 6:44 IST | Agency: DNA
Yoshita Sengupta 

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

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.

Original thread:

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Thanks to online shopping, even 23-year-olds get
excited to see the mailman.Will bought his phone 
and laptop online, along with his shoes and the 
jacket he’s wearing.The package he’s waiting for 
now is different: it should contain two grams of cocaine.

After an increasingly anxious wait, Will hears the postman drop the A4-sized parcel, bound in butcher’s paper, in the mailbox of his inner-Sydney terrace house. His name and address are handwritten in thick black texta.
Will carries the parcel to his bedroom, closes the door and tears away the loose wrapping paper. Instead of a zip-lock bag, he finds Katie Holmes’s face staring back at him from the cover of the June 2001 issue of Teen Vogue.
The tousle-haired engineering student smiles, but a quick flick through the magazine reveals nothing. Will scratches his head. Leafing through the pages a second time more slowly, he catches sight of a shampoo sample.
Underneath, stuck to the glue used to fix the sachet to the page, there is also a tiny foil parcel. Will rips off a corner, inserts a finger and dabs white powder on the inside of his lip like a cop in an action movie: “It’s real.”
“I’ve seen some insane packaging,” Will confides later. “Vacuum sealing, an iPhone case, MDMA disguised as soil samples – but this takes the cake.”
Will is one of thousands of Australians who buy their drugs on the internet. So far he’s arranged more than 50 small importations via Silk Road, an eBay-like website that, a quick browse reveals, sells everything from marijuana and pills by the kilo to fake NSW driver’s licenses. There’s even a stack of 100 counterfeit $50 notes (going for much less than $5000). The only things forbidden are weapons and child pornography.
Silk Road works just like its legal counterparts – vendors try to earn positive feedback from buyers. There’s even a dispute-resolution service in the event that a package doesn’t arrive when and where it’s supposed to. Silk Road is only accessible through Tor, networking software that masks the user’s IP address and location, though customers such as Will are understandably paranoid.
Will uses Bitcoin, a bank- and government-free digital currency, to make purchases. Though Bitcoins are already untrackable, he sends the money through a program that launders it via hundreds of other accounts, just in case. When he gives his address to vendors, it’s in an encrypted form that only they can decode.
There’s one facet of security that software can’t help with: Will still lives with his parents.
“Of course my parents are suss about strange letters arriving for me from the UK,” he says. “But I’ve thought about what I’d tell them – I’d tell them it was workout supplements.”
The use of the postal system to import illicit drugs hasn’t gone unnoticed by law enforcement. In the 2010–11 financial year, Customs seized 1317 postal packages containing drugs. So far this financial year there have been 7000 seizures.
In February, Melbourne nightclub bouncer Paul Leslie Howard became the first person in Australia to be charged for importing drugs bought on the internet. Howard, 32, was jailed for three years and six months for what the sentencing judge called a “smorgasbord drug-market operation”.
An Australian Federal Police operation targeting Silk Road users in March resulted in six arrests and the seizure of 140 packages variously containing LSD, heroin, steroids, MDMA, cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine (ice).
“You’ll often have an envelope with a small amount of drugs inside and in there is also a letter,” says Jim Carroll, the manager of international mail at Customs’ Sydney mail gateway. “And the letter goes something like: ‘If you are the intended recipient, please use responsibly. If you are from law enforcement, go fuck yourself.’
“We take that as a bit of a compliment. We do know that at some stage we had sellers on Silk Road saying that they would no longer sell to Australia because they were losing too many shipments.”

“Being able to sell [drugs] to people around the country or around the world without sharing anything more than an anonymous username could not be any safer.”
Yet many people selling drugs on Silk Road don’t seem too concerned. NeuroPlex, a 20-year-old pill vendor by night and Melbourne apprentice by day, is more occupied with retaining his 100% positive feedback rating and didn’t even realise the AFP was aware of the site. Another vendor is OzePharma, a 35-year-old Sydneysider who promises next-day delivery around Australia on orders placed before 4 pm. “Being able to sell to people around the country or around the world without sharing anything more than an anonymous username could not be any safer,” he says. “I attempted selling through the street market but it’s a dangerous and competitive and risky market to be in. I’ve seen people killed and houses raided by cops and rival dealers. I wasn’t made to be a street dealer and I never got far with it.”
OzePharma says he has 20 steady clients with whom he regularly chats on the site’s in-built mail service. This sense of community is encouraged by Silk Road’s founder, who goes by the name “Dread Pirate Roberts”, a moniker borrowed from the rakish hero of The Princess Bride. As well as drawing a commission on all sales, Roberts regularly takes to the site’s forums to declaim at length on topics such as liberty, child labour, the environment and, of course, the war on drugs.
“I won’t rest until children are born into a world where oppression, institutional violence and control, world war and all the other hallmarks of the state are as ancient history as pharaohs commanding armies of slaves,” Roberts preached in one such post last year.
Likewise, many Silk Road vendors and buyers appear to believe that the marketplace is a libertarian paradise that takes drugs out of the hands of “real criminals”. Yet it’s hard to get around the fact that illicit drug manufacturing worldwide is still overwhelmingly controlled by violent criminal organisations. At the same time, the biggest challenge to Silk Road may come not from law enforcement, but from competition. Four alternative websites have sprung up recently: BlackMarket Reloaded, Sheep Marketplace, Atlantis and the intriguingly named Russian Anonymous MarketPlace.
For four days across April and May this year, Silk Road was taken offline by hackers. Some users accuse the US Drug Enforcement Administration while others speculate that “Vladimir”, the founder of Atlantis, was behind the attacks, although he has publicly denied this. If he was, it worked – many vendors, OzePharma among them, set up accounts on Vladimir’s website.
“The Silk Road is a prototype – it’s a functional solution that is not as good as it could be,” explains Will. “Where there’s money, there’s innovation. Nobody uses AOL anymore; nobody uses AltaVista as a search engine. In five years, nobody will be buying drugs on Silk Road.”