As a clichéd magazine article on markets would have it, the world is literally ‘just a click away’ from the customer. If you’re tired of the shopping experience in the now-familiar jungles of Amazon, there’s the quirkier Alibaba for wishful goodies from China and beyond. But you can’t wish for just about anything. Internet as conventional, unadventurous users know it, is just the tip of the iceberg, manned perennially by watchful eyes of governments and corporates alike. Beneath this icy, regulated island stretch vast, unending roots—a virtual landscape that is, most efficiently, ‘beneath the law’, a terrain too dark to decipher through algorithms. It is this land that claims to fulfil all the darker wishes.
Ask the genie nicely and, a few file downloads and four or five steps later, India Post would deliver cocaine and other hardcores to your doorstep—and not even the messenger would know what’s in the message. But recently, sleuths in Hyderabad got a whiff of the fact that drug peddlers were not hanging out shadily in dark alleys, but crouching in front of their computers, placing bulk orders for LSD or Ecstasy from ‘Dark Net Markets’ (DNMs).
The way there isn’t that complicated. Through a Virtual Privacy Network (VPN), you install The Onion Router (TOR), a browsing software that layers your clicks from surveillance, ensuring anonymity. From hereon, communication happens through encrypted messages and transactions happen using crypto-currencies such as BitCoin. These combinations manage to keep out peeping Toms (unless they happen to be geeky, over-caffeinated hackers).
“TOR alone may not do the trick, but coupled with a VPN, it’s all you need to protect your identity on the dark net,” says Raghuveer, a regular buyer on DNMs. Raghuveer first got on DNMs when he moved to a new city and was unable to find the right dealers. He does not reveal what he buys but lets on that there’s very little that’s not available. The illustrious options on the cart range from psychedelics, opioids, Ecstasy, steroids, benzos, barbiturates and dissociatives to prescription drugs. From among this product line-up, “Indian vendors are particularly big on prescription drugs,” says Ayush Kukreja, another regular customer. There are antidepressants like Xanax and Valium, antihistamines like Promethazine, and opioid painkillers like Tydol and Tramadol available dirt cheap.
Kukereja marvels at the astonishingly cheap rates at which DNMs provide drugs as compared to street peddlers. His order of 100 251-NBOMe stamps, popularly known as N-Bomb in the market, cost just Rs 15,000, well below the market price. Happy with the buy, he also pla-ced an order for 10 grams of Ecstasy for Rs 6,000, a steal. In the market, Ecstasy costs approximately Rs 3,000 a gram.
After a little hands-on session at a popular, high-rated DNM, Outlook found it takes less than two minutes to log in, choose your poison and its delivery options, add filters and click the order tab. If you choose an Indian dealer to deliver to your Indian address (a combo available for most hallucinogens), a private courier service delivers it. For international packages, the world’s largest postal service, India Post, becomes the drug mule.
This inglorious distinction is not reserved for India alone. Almost all drug pushers on DNMs use their country’s postal service for inland and air mail deliveries since they are the cheapest and most reliable, especially for high-value international deals. Some offer tracking numbers—over encrypted, PGP-protected emails—but only for high-value, bulk consignments. Sleuths say in most cases sniffer dogs don’t work. Canine squads can sniff out cocaine and heroin but LSD and MDMA—both colourless and odourless—are beyond them.
“When packages come from specific Latin American countries like Brazil and Colombia or West European countries like Netherlands, Germany and so forth, we intimate the enforcement wing,” says Dr V.P.S. Reddy, postmaster general, Hyderabad. “All we request is that they take no more than 24 hours for their scrutiny. Beyond six hours, a complaint can be raised even with the prime minister’s public grievance portal.” Since July, his office has been submitting a daily average of 50 suspicious parcels for scrutiny.
Trouble is, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) is only “theoretically equipped to handle drug deals fixed over the net.” After Hyderabad, it’s got a better fix on the ways of the dark web and its external logistical mechanisms. Logically, it could move on to a fuller crackdown, but the NCB is already understaffed and is saddled with other vast ‘on-ground’ duties such as busting illegal opium rackets, and trafficking in heroin and other drugs.
Just over a month ago, the FBI along with Europol and enforcement agencies in six countries claimed to have shut down two of the world’s largest markets on the dark web—AlphaBay and Hansa—both associated with trade in drugs, guns, personal data and computer viruses. But within a day or two, the agencies noted that Hansa was back up again, listing the same dealers in a new avatar.
According to Europol, there are over 40,000 vendors on the dark web. Also, over 2.5 lakh listings for narcotics and such like, plus another lakh listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents, counterfeit goods, malware, computer hacking tools, firearms and fraudulent services. AlphaBay reported it has serviced over 2,00,000 users till date.
Of this astonishing number of vendors and users, many are Indian. One Indian dark-net narco, the 4.8/5-star-rated Madlyfooted, reportedly advertises, “Let’s make Indian DNM scene bright again.” Another vendor, HariPotter, says, “Fed up of customs seizing your order or local vendors charging you through the roof? We’re here to ensure it doesn’t happen anymore.”
When Silk Road, one of the first DNMs into drugs, was brought down by the FBI in October 2013, it arrested founder Ross William Ulbricht aka ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and seized 1,44,000 Bitcoins worth $28.5 million from him. According to Carnegie Mellon researcher Nicholas Christin, Silk Road grossed $1.2 million a month in the first half of 2012. Since then the site upped its listings, and buyers, and grossed an average annual rate of $30 million. By September 2013, it was up to $45 million. Just like Hansa, Silk Road 2.0 came online only a month after the first was taken down.
For some, it’s about more than just the trade or ‘doing drugs’. After an interview with Roberts, tech journalist Andy Greenberg wrote, “He sees himself not just as an enabler of street-corner pushers but also as a radical libertarian revolutionary carving out an anarchic digital space beyond the reach of the taxation and regulatory powers of the State—Julian Assange with a hypodermic needle.”
(Some names changed on request)
The ‘Goody’ Bag
They’ve been running in city streets for decades. Now, the dark web sells them too.
(Lysergic acid diethylamide)
In the 1960s, the US army is known to have ‘experimented’ with this psychotropic chemical compound. After little success, LSD was soon declared banned substance. It is a hallucinogenic, with users experiencing ‘elevated’ states of mind.
Latin-American druglords made ‘Charlie’ most popular in the 1970s. Coke is an upper, used to boost the mood by creating a rush. The cheap street version of the drug, called ‘crack’, is much more dangerous than cocaine and has wreaked havoc in the West.
Classified as a party drug that creates a “happy feeling” by reducing inhibitions. Was prescribed and sold legally for nearly 20 years before being banned. Dangerous chemicals are sometimes added to enhance the effect. It is consumed as a pill or liquid.
An ‘upper’ like ecstasy and cocaine, used widely in the party circuit. Cheaper than others, the pill is spiked with raw caffeine powder. Aka Crystal Meth, it is smoked in glass pipes and is highly addictive. It has the same harmful effects as heroin.