With new technologies evolving, criminals find easier ways for illicit activities â€” that is the dark side of anonymity and decentralization.
While the precise origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown, it hasÂ infectedÂ 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 inÂ frozen food supplies of meatÂ andÂ fish, according to aÂ study.
The United States â€” the worst-hit country by sheer numbers â€” 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.â€™ 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 â€” the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement, or J-CODE â€” 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,Â noted:
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the drug-trafficking business â€” just like the rest of the economy â€” further shifted online to the darknet, according to UNODCâ€™s recent World Drug Report.
Timothy J. Shea, the acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, highlighted:
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 generalâ€™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 donâ€™t cooperate with law enforcement with respect to drug trafficking.
According to Chainalysisâ€™ 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 â€” mathematician Paul Syverson and computer scientists Michael G. Reed and David Goldschlag â€” to facilitate encrypted online U.S. intelligence communication with intelligence sources around the world. Onion routing â€” encrypting communications and â€œbouncingâ€ them around a network of nodes so no one can ascertain where they originate from â€” 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 â€œTOR: The Second-Generation Onion Routerâ€ 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 TORâ€™s development until they launched â€œThe TOR Project,â€ 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 fundâ€™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, â€œthe 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.â€ 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 FBIâ€™s WrayÂ notedÂ that â€œwith the spike in opioid-related overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize that todayâ€™s announcement is important and timely.â€ He added: