27 Sep 2013

How illegal drugs are bought and sold on the dark web

It is possible to buy hard drugs online and have them delivered to your door, a Channel 4 News investigation can reveal. So how can the police combat this illegal trade on the dark web?

At first it looked like a spoof – an advert for a website selling a massive range of illegal drugs and promising delivery to your door.

But the site, Atlantis, was real, and a Channel 4 News investigation has revealed how easy it is to buy class A drugs from these underground marketplaces, some of which are seemingly beyond the reach of law enforcement.

It’s just like other shopping sites such as eBay or Amazon, except the goods on offer here are illegal. Neil Hare-Brown, Blackthorn GRC

Ryan West spent six months trading a range of drugs, including amphetamines and MDMA, the key ingredient in ecstasy. He said: “I was making huge profits, and that was just the beginning. Once I got bigger and better it was more profits. It was just insane. I made up to $40,000. It was unbelievably easy”.

Atlantis and its rival Silk Road are so-called “onion sites”, hidden from regular internet searches and only accessible using special software called TOR which users believe gives them complete anonymity.

The deals are done using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, which makes it very difficult for police to link transactions to individuals.


Atlantis launched six months ago in a blaze of publicity. But on Friday the site suddenly closed down citing “security concerns”. Its spokesman believes the police may have infiltrated the site.

Using the hacker name H2.0, he said: “In the last few months there’s been a lot of reports… about how TOR has security vulnerabilities. It’s come to light that it’s not as secure as the owners maybe thought it was when they set up the site.

“Perhaps they had some inclination that maybe they slipped up in the past as regards security and now they want to get out now, delete everything so there is no evidence to link them to the site.”

However, Silk Road is still up and running. A source close to the FBI told Channel 4 News that it has “exceptionally good operational security”, and its owners avoid personal meetings in order to stay under the radar.

It is impossible for those using these networks to completely erase their digital footprint. However technologically savvy the offender, they will always make mistakes. Lee Miles, Soca

Chief executive officer of Blackthorn GRC, Neil Hare-Brown, has spent years tracking such sites, on which users can leave feedback about their transactions.

“It’s just like other shopping sites such as eBay or Amazon,” he said, “except the goods on offer here are illegal.

“It’s not about large shipments – it’s small packages coming through postal networks. It’s going to be a big challenge not just for Royal Mail but for law enforcement trying to prevent this type of distribution.”

Drug testing

Channel 4 News bought 3.5g of MDMA and one gram of opium. Both were tested and found to be pure, before being destroyed by a Home Office-licensed lab.

Toxicologist John Ramsey, who conducted the tests, said: “These are controlled drugs and are deemed to have health risks, they shouldn’t be available. I’m surprised they’re readily available on the internet. We know there’s a market in legal highs, but these are illegal compounds.”

The police know of sites such as Silk Road and have claimed they are keeping up with the criminals.

In an interview with Channel 4 News in 2011, the then head of the Met Police e-crime unit, Charlie McMurdie, said: “The technology that’s often used by the cyber criminals is something law enforcement have to exploit as well.”

‘Monumental shift’

Yet the people behind Silk Road seem undeterred. Shortly after the closure of Atlantis, Silk Road’s owner, who uses the hacker name Dead Pirate Roberts, wrote: “Silk Road is here to stay.

“I believe what we are doing will have rippling effects for generations to come and could be part of a monumental shift in how human beings organise and relate to one another.”

Lee Miles, head of cyber for the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), said: “Online environments which appear to offer anonymity for criminals are a key priority for the National Crime Agency, which goes live on 7 October.

“It is impossible for those using these networks to completely erase their digital footprint. However technologically savvy the offender, they will always make mistakes, which allow us to track them using the expertise and technology we have available to us.”

‘Shining a light’

A Home Office spokesman said: “Criminals might think they can hide their activities in the dark web, but the new National Crime Agency will be working to shine a light into even its darkest corners and catch more abusers.

“If police believe a crime has been committed they can approach the originating internet service provider on the basis that disclosure of information under data protection legislation is proportional to the crime.

“UK Border Force officers are also on constant alert to keep illegal drugs from entering the country. Operations include intelligence-led examination of packages and letters sent through the post.”