How the internet is disrupting the drugs trade
Speaking with the Independent this week, Professor Adam R Winstock, a psychiatrist who founded the Global Drug Survey, said people living in major cities across the world can now have cocaine delivered to them faster than a takeaway pizza. In London, New York and Berlin, the dark web and encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp are allowing dealers to take orders online and offer superfast delivery to their customers’ doorsteps, so long as they are willing to pay a premium for the service. Instead of peddling their wares on the street, where the spread of CCTV has made it all but impossible to sell drugs without being caught on camera, dealers are now embracing new technology, which is revolutionising the trade in illicit substances in numerous countries around the globe.
The Deliveroo-style drop-off services are just one way in which the internet has disrupted drug dealing, moving the trade from street corners, bars and nightclubs to cyberspace. Proponents of the maturing online drugs marketplace argue that it offers a safer experience for buyers, removing the necessity to physically meet with dealers, but it has also made it much easier to buy substances that would previously have taken some effort to get hold of. Where purchasing drugs might once have involved numerous phone calls and travelling to meet a dealer who might not show up or run off with their money, buyers can now have their substance of choice delivered to their home in a few mouse clicks.
The dark web drug revolution has also resulted in the strength of narcotics sold on the internet increasing, as dealers seek to establish a reputation for quality through eBay-style feedback systems and online word of mouth. In the UK, drug users can now buy 85%-pure cocaine for as little as £40 ($55) a gram. Street cocaine in Britain can be as little as 20% pure. While this might be seen as a boon to some users, experts have warned that a new wave of super-strength drugs could put inexperienced users’ lives at risk. In a recent Reddit thread, an online drugs tester cautioned that consuming 85%-pure cocaine could result in users winding up in hospital. “This is very potent and users should be very careful with initial dosing – 100 MG will not be fun,” the tester wrote. “A UK user, who thinks they are experienced but buys low-quality cocaine in pubs and takes a 300MG dose, could end up in A&E. Please don’t be Billy big b****cks and try and impress your friends that you have the best cocaine available. Seeing your mate foaming at the mouth is no fun.”
The online drugs trade has also seen the potency of ecstasy rocket over recent years – a phenomenon that has coincided with the number deaths linked to the drug rising to a 10-year high across Europe. In the UK, a typical ecstasy tablet now contains 108mg of MDMA, compared with around 80mg per pill in the drug’s late-eighties/early-nineties heyday. Last month, reporters from Britain’s Daily Star newspaper discovered ecstasy tablets containing 200mg of MDMA for sale on the dark web, which is enough to kill. Some pills are now so potent that dealers warn potential customers to only take one half at a time. The UK, which experienced the highest number of drug overdose deaths in Europe last year, has seen multiple ecstasy-related deaths over recent years, resulting in London’s iconic Fabric nightclub being closed down after a number of young revellers lost their lives at the venue after taking the drug. Last month, dark web drug dealer Kurt Lailan from the British city of Portsmouth was jailed for 16 years after prosecutors told a court how two brothers died after buying ecstasy tablets from one of his vendor pages.
In the US, the dark web is playing a major role in the country’s epidemic synthetic opioid crisis, which has led to a sharp rise in the number of overdose deaths there in recent years. The US Department of Justice cited the sale of fentanyl as one of the reasons behind its takedown of dark web marketplaces Hansa and AlphaBay last summer. Hidden drug markets are awash with listings for fentanyl, which is being produced on an industrial scale at illicit drugs factories in China before being shipped to key markets such as the US, Europe and Australia. Speaking at the White House last October, US President Donald Trump promised a crackdown on the widespread availability of synthetic opioids across the country, an ambition that will be incredibly difficult to realise given the ubiquitous supply of substances such as fentanyl on dark web marketplaces.
As has been the case with many other industries, the internet has changed the drugs trade beyond all recognition, and will continue to do so as dealers now move away from the dark web to encrypted massaging apps in the wake of a number of hidden marketplace busts. While it may be the case that the online drugs trade results in buyers not having to deal with criminals on street corners, it is clear that it brings with it a new set of problems, which are not limited to the rising potency of traditional narcotics and the widespread availability of deadly new substances such as fentanyl. As well as making it all the more difficult for law enforcement authorities to catch dealers, the online sale of drugs is costing lives, and will likely continue to do so in greater number.
Virgin Media customers could face sextortion scams after exposed database links them to porn
Security researchers have revealed that a database left unsecured by UK cable TV and telephone company Virgin Media contained information linking some of its customers to adult and gore-related websites.
Cyber security firm TurgenSec said earlier this month that the insecure database contained the details of some 900,000 of the firm’s customers, and that this had been accessed on at least one occasion by an unknown user.
Responding to TurgenSec’s findings, Virgin apologised to customers affected and said in a statement that the database contained only “limited contact information”.
“To reassure you, the database did NOT include any passwords or financial details, such as bank account number or credit card information,” the company said.
In a statement on its website, TurgenSec questioned Virgin’s description of the insecure database as containing only “limited contact information”, noting that it did in fact carry information linking customers to “[r]equests to block or unblock various pornographic, gore related and gambling websites, corresponding to full names and addresses”.
The database is also said by TurgenSec to have contained IMEI numbers associated with stolen phones and information relating to subscriptions to Virgin’s services, including “premium” components.
If the database was accessed by hackers, customers whose names were linked to pornographic websites could be targeted by sextortion fraudsters.
TurgenSec said Virgin’s characterisation of the contents of the database as “limited contact information” was “disingenuous”.
“This breach is an important case study in the wider debate of responsible disclosure and how companies should behave to encourage a positive cyber security research culture,” TurgenSec said.
Sextortion fraud involves online scammers contacting victims claiming to be in possession of compromising sexual imagery or film of them, or information linking them to pornographic websites or material.
The scammers then threaten to post the content or information online or send it to friends, relatives and associates of the victim.
Back in January, online security firm vpnMentor revealed that porn cam network PussyCash had exposed the details of thousands of “models” across the globe.
The leak exposed more than 875,000 files, which included photographs of models in which their faces were visible accompanied by personal information including full name, date of birth and passport information.
vpnMentor noted that some of the images that had been exposed in the leak were up to 20 years old, suggesting that some of the models might have left the adult web cam world behind.
ASEAN nations hit by data breaches, ransomware attacks and cryptojacking last year, Interpol says
Southeast Asia experienced “significant” levels of cyber crime in 2019, including major data breaches, crippling ransomware attacks and a huge rise in cryptojacking, according to a new report from Interpol.
In its ASEAN Cyberthreat Assessment 2020, the International law enforcement agency revealed that the region saw an increase in botnet detections and the hosting of Command and Control (C2) servers in the first half of last year.
Interpol also said phishing campaigns increased in both quantity and sophistication, using advanced social engineering techniques.
Data obtained by Interpol’s private partners for the report showed that the region suffered 5% of global business email compromise (BEC) attacks, with Singapore and Malaysia recording the highest BEC cases of all ASEAN countries (54% and 20%, respectively).
Over the first half of last year, Southeast Asia saw a 50% rise in banking malware attacks compared to the whole of 2018, with prominent malware families such as the Emotet16 banking Trojan shifting from banking credential theft to the distribution business.
Elsewhere, the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin resulted in the rise of crypto-ransomware and cryptojacking, the latter of which involves hackers exploiting unsuspecting computer users’ processing power and bandwidth to mine virtual currency after infiltrating their systems using purpose-built malware.
The Interpol ASEAN Cybercrime Operations Desk concluded its report by vowing to enhance cyber crime intelligence for effective responses to cyber crime in the region, strengthen cooperation for joint operations against cyber crime, and develop regional capacity and capabilities to combat cyber crime.
Commenting on the contents of the report, Interpol’s Director of Cyber Crime Craig Jones said: “In today’s highly digitalised world, the sooner countries are aware of a threat, the sooner they can take steps to mitigate the risk and minimise the cyber threats coming from all directions.
“To this end, we encourage law enforcement in all countries to be actively engaged in collective efforts against these threats, particularly through sharing intelligence and the formulation of a joint operation framework to effectively reduce the global impact of cybercrime.”
In January, Interpol teamed up with several Southeast Asian law enforcement agencies to crack down on cryptojacking.
They used intelligence obtained from police and partners in the cyber security industry to identify a global cryptojacking campaign facilitated by hackers in the region through the exploitation of a vulnerability in MikroTik routers.
Interpol’s Operation Goldfish Alpha also sought to raise awareness of what is a relatively unknown crime in the region, and teach local law enforcement agencies how to deal with it effectively.
Irish researchers use network analysis to help Brazilian police identify dark web paedophiles
A team of researchers from Ireland’s University of Limerick is helping police in Brazil disrupt the distribution of indecent images and videos of children on the dark web.
The group of mathematicians led by Dr Bruno da Cunha used network analysis to assess the effectiveness of Operation Darknet, a Brazilian Federal Police operation that targeted one of the largest dark web paedophile networks ever discovered.
The crackdown, which took place between 2014 and 2016, resulted in the identification and arrest of 182 users of the forum, 170 of whom were distributors, and the rescue of six children.
In research published in Nature’s Scientific Reports journal, Da Cunha and his team explain how effective the police operation was at identifying offenders.
While examining this, the researchers identified patterns that could help investigators determine which paedophile offenders to go after when probing similar dark web forums in the future.
In a statement, Dr Pádraig MacCarron, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the analysis, commented: “Network analysis has previously been applied to drug trafficking networks and terrorist networks to identify structural weaknesses and key figures in these illicit networks.
“The dark web network in this study, however, was much more dense – as in there were more connections between users than normal – making it more difficult to breakdown using traditional network methods. It was found that the 60% of those core 766 distributors would need to be removed to completely fragment the network. This makes the network highly robust.”
The collaboration is believed to have been the first between a Brazilian law enforcement agency and Irish mathematicians.
Operation Darknet, which was launched simultaneously across 18 Brazilian states and the federal district of Brasilia, marked the first time investigators outside of the UK and America had been able to crack a dark web paedophile forum.
Suspects detained during the operation were reported at the time to include retired police officers, civil servants, prison guards and youth football club managers.
The indecent material posted on the site by users in Brazil was shared with paedophiles in countries including Portugal, Italy, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela.
Speaking with Vice News when news of the site takedown first emerged, Rafael França, Coordinator of Operation Darknet, said: “This is the first time that the Brazilian police has done an operation like this, seeking targets in the darknet.”
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