With new technologies evolving, criminals find easier ways for illicit activities — that is the dark side of anonymity and decentralization.
While the precise origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown, it has infected more than 30 million people, with almost 1 million confirmed to have died from it as it continues to spread across the world. The highly contagious virus has the ability to survive up to three weeks in frozen food supplies of meat and fish, according to a study.
The United States — the worst-hit country by sheer numbers — is now facing two intersecting health crises: The ongoing opioid overdose epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic with more than 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 fatalities, which is about 20% of the global total death cases. Regrettably, each has the potential to exacerbate the effects of the other. Nevertheless, in a hopeful announcement, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory disclosed that they found a safe way to track the spread of COVID-19 and other contagious diseases from one cell to another in the human body.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that drug overdose deaths have been on an upward climb for several years across all demographic groups in the United States. More precisely, the catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19 cases have been recorded in the U.S.’ packed jails, prisons and immigration detention centers, according to epidemiologist Dr. Chris Beyrer.
Overcrowding, poor hygiene, inadequate access to medical care, as well as the incarcerated population suffering from a number of pre-existing conditions, including substance use disorder which is estimated at 65%, have created a perfect storm for a COVID-19 outbreak. Currently, COVID-19 infection rates in prisons alone exceed the total cases of some countries.
Darknet and the epidemics
A transnational task force of both the U.S. and Europe — the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement, or J-CODE — combats the complex and deadly threat of online darknet drug sales in opioids, in particular fentanyl, with the assistance from the U.S. FBI, the DEA, the USPIS, ICE of Homeland Security Investigations, the CBP, the DOJ, the DOD and Europol.
Earlier this year, Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, in a report to the House Judiciary Committee, noted:
“Today, international criminal enterprises run multinational, multi-billion-dollar schemes from start to finish. Modern-day criminal enterprises are flat, fluid networks with global reach. […] Transnational organized crime networks exploit legitimate institutions for critical financial and business services that enable the storage or transfer of illicit proceeds. […] Illicit drug trafficking continues to be a growing threat. Large amounts of high-quality, low-cost heroin and illicit fentanyl are contributing to record numbers of overdose deaths and life-threatening addictions nationwide. The accessibility and convenience of the drug trade online contributes to the opioid epidemic in the U.S.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the drug-trafficking business — just like the rest of the economy — further shifted online to the darknet, according to UNODC’s recent World Drug Report.
Timothy J. Shea, the acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, highlighted:
“As technology has evolved, so too have the tactics of drug traffickers. Riding the wave of technological advances, criminals attempt to further hide their activities within the dark web through virtual private networks and tails, presenting new challenges to law enforcement in the enduring battle against illegal drugs.”
For a progress report regarding the work of the J-CODE, U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan, Dianne Feinstein and John Cornyn asked the U.S. attorney general’s office and the FBI in a letter whether the DOJ has a system that tracks indictments and investigations related to crimes involving the darknet and opioids; if authorities have been able to determine which countries opioids are coming from on the darknet; and whether there are technology companies that provide secure or encrypted communications that don’t cooperate with law enforcement with respect to drug trafficking.
According to Chainalysis’ recent Global Crypto Adoption Index, Eastern Europe accounts for more global darknet market activity than any other region, with most of the darknet peer-to-peer crypto and trading transaction activity occurring on Hydra Marketplace, which can only be accessed with an anonymized browser like The Onion Router, or TOR.
About The Onion Router
The core principle of TOR was developed in the mid-1990s by the U.S. NRL employees — mathematician Paul Syverson and computer scientists Michael G. Reed and David Goldschlag — to facilitate encrypted online U.S. intelligence communication with intelligence sources around the world. Onion routing — encrypting communications and “bouncing” them around a network of nodes so no one can ascertain where they originate from — was further developed by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research and development agency of the U.S. DOD, in 1997.
In 2002, the alpha version of TOR was developed by Syverson and computer scientists Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson, with a second-generation “TOR: The Second-Generation Onion Router” released by the Naval Research Laboratory under a free license two years later. The Electronic Frontier Foundation began funding Dingledine, Mathewson and others to continue TOR’s development until they launched “The TOR Project,” a nonprofit organization to help maintain the network. Prior to 2014, the majority of funding sources for TOR came from the U.S. government.
TOR is the most popular means by which people access darknet sites that are encrypted and hidden from traditional search engines, allowing users to interact with a high degree of confidentiality. TOR has several search engines, directories and hidden wikis that users can easily use to navigate their way around the darknet.
The anonymity of the darknet has fostered crimes such as narcotics trafficking and money laundering with the use of cryptocurrency. By 2010, with the launch of Bitcoin and with hacktivists involved in the Arab Spring movements, sites offering almost any type of illicit service imaginable experienced an explosion.
Criminals prefer using the darknet coupled with cryptocurrency tumblers or mixing services, which are transmitted person-to-person with no oversight by governments or central banks, to obscure the trail back to the fund’s original source while paying for illicit goods and services.
Reportedly, Hydra, the largest darknet market, has been planning to expand into the English part of the darknet by launching Eternos, a new darknet called AspaNET that will be an alternative to TOR.
In a DEA announcement, “the Department of Justice, through the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement team, joined Europol to announce the results of Operation DisrupTor, a coordinated international effort to disrupt opioid trafficking on the Darknet.” Law enforcement officials arrested 179 people and seized more than $6.5 million in cash and digital currency, and 500 kilograms of drugs in a worldwide crackdown on opioid trafficking on the darknet.
The FBI’s Wray noted that “with the spike in opioid-related overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize that today’s announcement is important and timely.” He added:
“The FBI wants to assure the American public, and the world, that we are committed to identifying Darknet drug dealers and bringing them to justice. But our work does not end with today’s announcement. The FBI, through JCODE and our partnership with Europol, continues to be actively engaged in a combined effort to disrupt the borderless, worldwide trade of illicit drugs. The FBI will continue to use all investigative techniques and tools to identify and prosecute Darknet opioid dealers, wherever they may be located.”
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.