Dark web becomes marketplace for guns, drugs and data hacking

The dark web is increasingly becoming the marketplace for lone-wolf terrorists to buy guns, drug dealers to sell their wares and for hackers to trade personal data, a Johnston Press investigation has found.

Anonymous person with notebook in the dark
Anonymous person with notebook in the dark

Reports by the not-for-profit research organisation RAND Europe has revealed that firearm sales on encrypted internet networks such as The Onion Router (Tor) are now a £60,000-a-month trade worldwide – and a quarter of that is heading to Europe.

The National Crime Agency has warned that an increasing number of those arms are arriving at addresses via the postal system in either kit form or disguised as some other package – in one case as a vintage clock.

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Large numbers of Syrian migrants are turning to the dark web to buy UK passports, while other studies have revealed the number of drugs being bought and sold on the dark web in the UK has doubled since 2014.

Personal data, one of the fastest growing commodities on the encrypted form of the internet first released into the public domain by US Navy coders in 2004, is also trading hands at a dollar an identity. More than ten million people in the UK are currently unaware that their details are being traded by scammers.

But experts say the rise in criminals using the anonymous cryptomarkets of the dark web presents the UK with a major legal challenge.

Russell Tyner, the crown prosecutor in the CPS’s International Justice and Organised Crime Division, said the very fact the hidden networks operate outside of the reach of internet powerhouses such as Google and Microsoft is a major problem in bringing cases to court.

“Those service providers cannot assist when you are looking to evince the digital footprint people have left,” My Tyner said. “You would normally go to Microsoft and Google and link searches back to a particular IP address. But when people are using Tor, you can’t do that.”

And because the Tor browser scrambles the IP address of the user to make it look like they are working from a different computer – often in a different country – it also presents issues around which law enforcement agency pursues the investigation.

The solitary terrorist in the 2016 Munich shooting used weapons purchased on the dark web. Ali David Sonboly, was carrying more than 300 bullets in his backpack and pistol when he shot himself, after first killing nine people and wounding 27 more.

During September 2015, Liam Lyburd, a teenager from Newcastle, was allegedly planning to massacre former classmates at Newcastle College. The police discovered a Glock semi-automatic pistol and ammunition at his home. The report states the weapon was bought on the dark web.

l Reporting team: Aasma Day, Cahal Milmo, Don Mort, Chris Burn, Ruby Kitchen, Paul Lynch, Oli Poole, Gavin Ledwith, Ben Fishwick, Philip Bradfield and Deborah Punshon