How the dark web is used to sell illegal drugs like fentanyl

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Tech expert talks about the evolution of the internet and how it’s used in crimes
WATCH: Tech expert talks about the evolution of the internet and how it’s used in crimes – Mar 30, 2017

The so-called dark web: It’s a place to buy and sell illegal drugs, human organs and weapons, and it’s all taking place in the shadowy depths of the Internet.

Most people don’t have access to the dark web and the encryption techniques make it nearly impossible to locate users.

But what exactly is the dark web and how easy is it to access it?

The dark web is the virtual equivalent of a black market. People and businesses that want to operate out of the arms of the law usually head to into the dark web.

“It’s the seedy underbelly of the internet,” Peter Culley, a Winnipeg software engineer said. “There are layers of it too. You have to get trust to get down even further.”

Is there a difference between dark and deep web?

There is the surface or visible web, which most of the public uses. Examples include searching on Google, using Reddit or watching videos on YouTube.

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Then there’s the deep web, which is not accessible through search engines. Websites on the surface Internet are indexed for search engines to find, but the deep web is not.The deep web also can be accessed by most people as it includes email, online banking, government databases and libraries.

One layer under that is the dark web, which is part of the deep web. Unlike the deep web, this dark portion of the Internet is deliberately hidden.

Everything that appears on the surface of the Internet resembles the tip of the iceberg, Culley said. Below the surface of the water, is 80 per cent of the iceberg, which makes up for the deep and dark web, he added. It’s invisible and untraceable for the browser.

Is the dark web easy to access?

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A person needs special software to connect to this part of the Internet. For example, many dark web websites are only accessible through networks such as Tor — a secure web network that hides the user’s IP address in order to maintain anonymity.

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READ MORE: Fact file: What is Tor and how is it used?

Tor was originally created by the U.S. military to help protect government communications. The organization consists of a few employees and many volunteers.

A 2016 study called, Cryptopolitik and the Darknet found 57 per cent of the sites designed for Tor facilitate criminal activity, including drugs, money laundering trading of firearms.

The study looked at 5,205 live websites, out of which 2,723 were successfully classified into “illegal categories.”

The sites that weren’t used for illegal activity were mainly about the dark web itself, the study showed. They included hosting services and tutorials on using Tor and personal blogs.

Is it legal?

Although there are many websites that exist to provide illegal service, the dark web is still legal, Culley said.

“You cannot be charged with anything for simply searching the dark web,” he said.

How do people make interactions?

The dark web operates in virtual currencies, the most popular being bitcoins. This is because regular currency, like credit cards, can be traced. Bitcoin uses an encrypted method of payment, making it untraceable.

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For example, in the recent cyberattacks involving WannaCry ransomware, the program encrypted people’s files and demanded payment in bitcoin, ranging between $300 and $600.

While some people use the dark web in order to browse innocuous websites anonymously, it also a home to shady, often illegal dealings – like the fentanyl trade.

READ MORE: How the WannaCry ransomware attack spread around the world

How are people using it to sell fentanyl?

Bruce MacFarlane is a former federal prosecutor from Manitoba. Starting in 1987, he worked on drug trafficking cases and then was promoted to assistant deputy attorney general in Ottawa, where he was in charge of all federal prosecutions in Canada.

He said people are using the dark web to sell illegal and deadly drugs, like fentanyl and carfentanil. Because many of the drug dealers are using hidden IP addresses, many are unafraid of being caught.

READ MORE: Buying fentanyl is just a few clicks and a phone call away. And it’s making things difficult for the RCMP

“It’s like the old carnival game of whack-a-mole,” MacFarlance said. “They know they can move their website very quickly and they are ahead of law enforcement.  These major fentanyl dealers have dodged the law enforcement bullet.”

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David Horton owner of InterFusion Media, a technology company in Winnipeg, Man., said anyone with a computer can access this.

“How fast can you set up these accounts, get onto the internet and go from there? About an hour and a half,” Horton said.

“Whatever you’re looking for, whatever you want to do. The sky’s the limit.”

How are police cracking down?

A famous example of the FBI cracking down on the dark web is with the illegal underground drug-selling website Silk Road.

Silk Road was an online black market that was housed on the dark web. It was used to sell illegal drugs and other products and protected users with an encryption technique, like Tor, making it impossible to physically locate the computers hosting or accessing websites on the network.

READ MORE: Break in Silk Road website case came from Canada

In 2013, the FBI shut down the website and the founder, Ross William Ulbricht was arrested convicted of seven drug and conspiracy counts. Two years later he was sentenced to life in prison.

Cpl. Scott Hanson with Manitoba RCMP’s clandestine lab enforcement response team, said it’s difficult to crack down on websites that sell drugs.

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“You can’t regulate the Internet and cannot shut down our borders,” Hanson said.

“Some of these sites can be up and down in a matter of hours,” RCMP said. “The best we to establish patterns and identify the source countries.”

To stop illegal substances from coming into Canada via the dark web, Horton said it should be done so at the border.

“More focus on how is it being brought into Canada,” he said. “Someone can log into the Internet, go into the deep web and order it. The only way to protect ourselves and our kids is to put better enforcement at our borders to stop it from coming it.”

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