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Qualitative research: Monitoring anonymous online drug marketplaces
NEW PSYCHOACTIVE SUBSTANCES (NPS):
BUILDING KNOWLEDGE AND EVIDENCE
BASED TRAINING THROUGH RESEARCH
Qualitative research: Monitoring anonymous online drug marketplaces
Thursday 5th March 2015
• Historic background to the Hidden web drug markets
• How the qualitative research was undertaken in previous studies
• Ethical considerations
o PGP Encryption
o Accessing Tor Network
o Accessing dark net websites and forums
Utilising Social Media
INTERNET DRUG MARKETS
• The ‘alt’ online newsgroup provided a forum for information
sharing. Alt.drug and Alt.drugs.chemistry (created in 1994)
• Discussions how to grow cannabis, manufacture and the
synthesis of Drugs, this included a private messaging system
• Illicit drugs have been bought and sold on the internet since it
was first established. According to Markoff (2005)
• The Hive, which was
established in 1997 introduced
the integrated market to the
online trade eventually shut
down in 2004
• The goal of Onion Routing is not to provide anonymous communication. Parties are free
to (and usually should) identify themselves within a message. But the use of a public
network should not automatically give away the identities and locations of the
communicating parties. For example, imagine a researcher who uses the World Wide
Web to collect data from a variety of sources. Although each piece of information that he
retrieves is publicly known, it may be possible for an outside observer to determine his
sensitive interests by studying the patterns in his requests. Onion Routing makes it very
difficult to match his HTTP requests to his site.
• David. M Goldschlag, Michael G. Reed& Paul F. Syverson, ‘Hiding Routing Information,
Workshop on Information Hiding, Cambridge, UK, 1996.
• http://www.cs.jhu.edu/~fabian/ courses/CS600.424/course_papers/goldschlag96hiding.pdf
DRUGS AND THE HIDDEN WEB
The drug store
A Figment Of Your
Binary Blue Stars
The ‘Deep Web’ is a secure and confidential
communication lines by encryption of computer IP
addresses using Tor anonymising software or web
proxy to the Tor network (http://tor2web.org ).
There is a shift toward widespread global availability of
all drugs which is evident in the recent online presence
of drug marketplaces
The launch of Silk Road as a competing public drug
site was a challenge to the viability of OVDB, and
particularly as Silk Road received significant
publicity and attention.
Traffic to the site ‘soared’ and ‘demand for the
virtual currency drove up the value of one
bitcoin to more than $30’ within weeks of the
article’s publication Norris & Moses (2011)
• United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s
(UNODC) 2014 World Drug Report sets out in its
first ever mention of the phenomenon, the
hidden Dark Net drugs markets have ‘the
potential to become a popular mode of trafficking
in controlled substances in years to come
A DECENTRALISED MARKETPLACE
1. no one owns the network
2. platform for people to manage their own
3. No Commission and No Fees
RESULTS OF THE SEIZURES
• Trust and increased suspicion
• Vendors and buyers moved to other market places or underground
Users and sellers alike can have the freedom
to be open and express themselves in ways
that are impossible in real life’.
Provided a space where people could discuss
drug safety, optimal dosing and harm
reduction. It creates a community of
individuals sharing their experiences and
knowledge on harm reduction information in a
non-judgemental environment where people
felt safe to discuss drug related issues due to
the anonymity of Tor. Matt Gleeson Stonetreeaus
• Relationships between vendors and consumers are based on
cyber levels of trust and professionalism, and supported by
‘stealth modes’, user feedback and resolution modes.
• ‘The advantage of Silkroad is your reputation is open to all. If
you mess someone around its reflected in your feedback and
ratings’. (Silk Road Vendor)
• Vendors on the market places able to offer higher quality products
than those generally available on the street.
• Online drug distribution removes many of the middlemen involved in
conventional drug supply chains
• Posted directly from producers to consumers.
• Customer feedback plays a crucial role in regulating online drug
SILK ROAD’, THE VIRTUAL DRUG MARKETPLACE: A SINGLE
CASE STUDY OF USER EXPERIENCES
• Online researching of drug outcomes, particularly for new
psychoactive substances was reported.
• Relationships between vendors and consumers were described as
based on cyber levels of trust and professionalism, and supported
by ‘stealth modes’, user feedback and resolution modes.
• The reality of his drug use was described as covert and solitary
with psychonautic characteristics, which contrasted with his
membership, participation and feelings of safety within the ‘Silk
Road’ community. (parallel life).
SURFING THE SILK ROAD’: A STUDY OF USERS’ EXPERIENCES.
VAN HOUT & BINGHAM (2013)
• Majority of participants were male, in professional employment or in third level education.
• Drug trajectories ranged from 18 months to 25 years, with favourite drugs including MDMA,
2C-B, mephedrone, nitrous oxide, ketamine, cannabis and cocaine.
• Few reported prior experience of online drug sourcing. Reasons for utilizing ‘Silk Road‟
included curiosity, concerns for street drug quality and personal safety, variety of products,
anonymous transactioning, and ease of product delivery.
• Vendor selection appeared based on trust, speed of transaction, stealth modes and quality of
product. Forums on the site provided user advice, trip reports, product and transaction
reviews. Some users reported solitary drug use for psychonautic and introspective purposes.
• Minority reported customs seizures, and in general a displacement away from traditional drug
sourcing (street and closed markets) was described. Several reported intentions to
commence vending on the site.
RESPONSIBLE VENDORS, INTELLIGENT CONSUMERS:
SILK ROAD, THE ONLINE REVOLUTION IN DRUG TRADING
• Vendors described themselves as 'intelligent and responsible' consumers of drugs. Decisions
to commence vending operations on the site centred on simplicity in setting up vendor
accounts, and opportunity to operate within a low risk, high traffic, high mark-up, secure and
anonymous Deep Web infrastructure.
• The embedded online culture of harm reduction ethos appealed to them in terms of the
responsible vending and use of personally tested high quality products. The professional
approach to running their Silk Road businesses and dedication to providing a quality service
was characterised by professional advertising of quality products, professional
communication and visibility on forum pages, speedy dispatch of slightly overweight products,
competitive pricing, good stealth techniques and efforts to avoid customer disputes.
• Vendors appeared content with a fairly constant buyer demand and described a relatively
competitive market between small and big time market players.
• Concerns were evident with regard to Bitcoin instability.
• Ethical Approval Granted.
• Sought permission from Administrator.
• Established credibility amongst the community who are naturally suspicious of
• I had to be visible and transparent – provided links to previous research.
• Posted threads about the research.
• Focused on the motives and not requiring personal or identifiable information
• Read discussions to further enhance knowledge and contributed to discussions where deemed
• Keeping the thread alive allowing people the freedom to express their views
• Provided a trusted and ‘secure email address
• Vendors and buyers could use PGP
• Dealing with trolls and threats
• Working and gaining trust with the peers on the site
• Used the same cyber name across all the platforms
• Due to the potential risk of Law Enforcement requiring the
Ensured all communication was encrypted
Ensured that no identifiable information was kept
Email correspondence was deleted
• Utilises the internet to collect data or information
• Online interviews
• Threads posted on forums and responses
• Private one to one interviews
RESEARCH ETHICS AND ETHICAL TREATMENT
• Principles of research ethics and ethical treatment of
persons are contained in a number of documents
UN Declaration of Human Rights
• These policies include the fundamental rights of human
dignity, autonomy, protection, safety and the minimisation
• How are participants/authors approached by the researcher?
• How will the data be stored is there potential for this data to be used
at a later date ?
• Will identifying information be stored with the data ? For example
• How will stored data be unlinked from individuals (i.e IP addresses )
• What is the potential risk or harm might result from reuse and or
distribution of the data .
• If data collected in the research has the potential to be
linked back to an individual ?
• How is the data being stored and how is sensitive data
being secured ?
• Does the storage have the potential to be hacked ?
• There is an ethical obligation by the researcher (s)
to protect the participant or the authors of
comments and threads
• Researchers have a ‘duty of care’ to those they
• A site may appear relatively stable but may change suddenly
requiring a swift response from researcher(s).
• Different cyber identities ? May enable the researcher to gain a
wider access to the community
However is this ethical ?
If the community suspect Law Enforcement they will react to this
REMEMBER a lot has been learnt from the previous site
Always remain Transparent
Accounts > Manage Accounts > Add
On the Basic tab, change the Protocol to XMPP.
Type in a username.
Type in a password
Click the box at the bottom 'Create this new account on the server'