Dark web, dark deeds – report reveals reality of virtual illicit guns trade

Where do criminals obtain their firearms from? It’s a topic of much conjecture and debate, with the definitive answer mired by the fact that criminals are unlikely to reveal their sources of supply. While authorities constantly target the law-abiding firearm owner in an unsuccessful and misguided attempt to curb the illicit firearms market, a new report has found that the internet is being used as a virtual trading platform for criminals.

Behind the curtain: the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web is the first study to examine the size and scope of the dark web in terms of illicit firearms trading. Described by the researchers as a section on the internet that is “not searchable by traditional search engines and hidden behind anonymity software”, the dark web has been identified as a potential “platform of choice for individuals (eg, lone-wolf terrorists) or small groups (eg, gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition behind the anonymity curtain”.

Released in July 2017, the 148-page report, commissioned by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, made some startling revelations. It valued the dark web arms trade at around $US80,000 per month, with firearms accounting for nearly 90 per cent of all sales. It also traced buyers and sellers to Australia, with 11 Australian-based vendors identified as listing firearms for sale on dark web pages, selling and shipping around $1120 worth of illicit wares each month. Australia was also listed as a shipping destination for illicit firearms.

Conducted by the independent not-for-profit research group RAND Europe and the University of Manchester, the study also found that 60 per cent of firearms for sale on the dark web are sourced from the United States. Criminal customers in Europe were found to be the main purchasers of illicit firearms, accounting for 25 per cent of tracked sales, at prices around five times those of other customers. The lone-wolf attacker in Munich, Germany, in 2016, where nine people were killed and 36 others injured, used a pistol purchased on the dark web.

The study collected data between September 19 and 25, 2016, from 12 ‘cryptomarkets’, a section on the dark web that “brings together multiple sellers managed by marketplace administrators.” Of 167,693 listings, 811 were selling arms-related products. Forty-two per cent of the 811 listings were firearms; 27 per cent were arms-related digital products (such as banned how-to guides on homemade explosives); and other items, including ammunition, were noted in 22 per cent of listings. Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 per cent), followed by rifles (10 per cent) and sub-machine guns (6 per cent).

The report also offered insight into how firearms have been shipped to avoid detection, citing “consumer electronics castings such as printers or TV sets, or in a music instrument case with a false hard bottom”. One vendor was even offering to ship firearms with illicit drugs at a discounted shipping rate. Distance or location did not appear to be an issue, highlighting the global nature of the dark web illicit arms trade.

Lead report author Giacomo Persi Paoli described the dark web as “an enabler for the trade of illegal weapons already on the black market”. “The ability to not only arm criminals and terrorists, who can make virtually anonymous purchases, but also vulnerable and fixated individuals is perhaps the most dangerous aspect,” he said.

Co-author Judith Aldridge, from the University of Manchester, noted how “anyone can connect to the dark web and within minutes have access to a variety of vendors offering their products”. “This veil of anonymity, combined with the relative ease of access, makes the dark web an attractive option for a wide range of sellers,” she said.

The SSAA has previously outlined the challenges for government and law enforcement to police the illegal sales of firearms and weapons on the dark web. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission identified the emerging threat posed by illicit firearms sourced via the dark net in its recent annual reports, while media outlets have also investigated the availability of handguns on dark web platforms.

This new report sheds more light on the need for authorities to further address the trafficking of illicit firearms via the dark web. Pointing to its previous studies into illicit drugs, RAND researchers recommended a similar approach for dark web firearms trading: traditional investigation techniques, postal detection and interception, online detection and monitoring plus online disruption.

Mr Persi Paoli offered the following advice for enforcers: “If properly implemented, all measures designed to tackle illegal arms trafficking in the real world may reduce the availability of illegal weapons to be traded.” The dark web is the new reality for law enforcement.

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