The RCMP has warned about criminals using dark web marketplaces and modern virtual currencies (which are generally hard to track due to the high anonymity offered by the two,) to sell illegal guns and drugs online, shipping them using creative techniques.
The warning comes as the Trudeau government in Canada moves with speed to tighten a legal framework over trade and tracing of firearms following the round outcry by thousands of citizens across North America over gun violence.
According to the interim director of firearm regulatory authority at the RCMP, Rob O’Reilly, the coming of the dark web which he referred to as the hidden parts of the internet which is only accessible through special anonymous browsers is posing challenges for law enforcers in trying to tackle and stop gun trafficking.
“When law agencies shut down major dark web online markets such as Silk Road after years of investigation and hard work, others pop up the following day in even deeper realms of cyberspace,” O’Reilly told the national Symposium on illegal gangs.
AlphaBay mysteriously went offline as a successful shutdown last year. It was widely considered the biggest online black market for drugs, estimated to host daily transactions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Last time I checked, Berlusconi, a dark web illegal online market had 234 different types of firearms listing from AK-47 rifles, AR-15s, handguns, countless magazines and thousands of rounds of ammunition.” O’Reilly pointed out. He displayed a photo of an AR-15 magazine and ammunition seized from a merchant in Montana to a buyer who was not licensed in Sudbury, Ontario.
The firearms are said to be sold and shipped through creative techniques alongside cocaine, heroin, opioids, fraud tools, ransomware, stolen data, malware, credit card, poisons such as ricin and radioactive polonium-210.
The merchant had made several successful gun related sales through the dark web a few days before he was arrested. The products were wrapped in plastic covers and put in Mylar bags before camouflaging them in food packaging material.
“The dark web merchants resorted to the various ingenious mode of shipping firearms and other illegal products commonly known as “stealth shipping” by the dark web community, which involves hide or masking the actual content from police and border authorities.”
Firearms have been traded and shipped in computer hard drives, hairdryers, gaming consoles, boxes of chocolate and even behind flat screen TVs.
O’Reilly noted that Tor, the Onion Router network which has constructively been used by government agents, whistleblowers, journalist, and activists to anonymously conduct their online duties, is now used by individuals with the ill intent to conduct illegal trading.
The virtual currency has also taken a significant part in the saga. Bitcoin which is currently the common digital currency on the dark web, has been used as the mode of payment in the illegal firearm trade. “Due to the high level of anonymity provided by the cryptocurrencies, they are used to obscure transaction details from investigators making it extremely hard and very expensive to follow up,” he said.
“Some firearms and their accessories may be illegal in one country and completely legal in another neighboring country,” Mr. O’Reilly noted. Different international laws have contributed in one way or another to the problem. “However, this problem with regard to our neighbors to the south has been with us but now is compounded by the online international borderless market. In some cases, the guns are imported to Canada as different components where they are easily assembled via online tutorials.”
“Online investigation whether on the dark web or on the surface web requires very special and specific skills,” O’Reilly said. “There is a need to continually update the police training curriculum.”