Can Hong Kong’s police fight 'Dark Net'? Surge in illegal drug sites as experts warn city is 'ripe for addiction'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 1:18pm

As drug dealers jump on the e-commerce bandwagon and begin offering their wares online, experts warn that Hong Kong police may be unprepared to tackle so-called "Dark Net" markets where anything from narcotics to guns can be bought and sold anonymously. 

Despite some recent success stories such as the 2013 raid on the Silk Road online drug market and the arrest of its shadowy figurehead Ross "Dread Pirate Roberts" Ulbricht, new sites are springing up every day, with many offering illegal goods for sale in Hong Kong. 

Earlier this year, the city's Customs and Excise Department reported a staggering 186 per cent year-on-year rise in the number of drug seizures, and police hailed success in "eradicating" drug networks in the city's famed party district, Lan Kwai Fong. 

However, experts warn that authorities may be ignoring a developing global trend of drug trafficking, like other industries, moving online. 

According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Dark Net cryptomarkets (see glossary) dealing in narcotics are generating more than US$100 million in annual sales worldwide, or between US$300,000 and US$500,000 of drug sales per day.

A UK Parliamentary report produced in March said that there were around 2.5 million daily users of Tor, the anonymising software used to shield web traffic from surveillance, avoid internet restrictions, and access the Dark Net.

Around 50 per cent of Tor users employ the software for criminal purposes, according to the report.

While the software required to access the Dark Net is highly sophisticated, obtaining and working out how to use it is just a Google search away.

On popular Hong Kong forum HKGolden, commenters in a thread entitled "What is the Dark Net?" explained how to download Tor and other tools, though some warned against discussing the matter in public over fears of possible surveillance by law enforcement.

After downloading the free Tor browser – which operates like Firefox or Google Chrome with the added ability of accessing Dark Net sites – users can visit .onion URLs such as the one for Agora, currently the largest cryptomarket.

Once the user has created an account, they will be greeted by a webpage that resembles Amazon or Taobao but with heroin and ecstasy pills in place of Kindles and CDs.

Encrypted messages are sent between the buyer and vendor, and payments are made in Bitcoin, the decentralised virtual cryptocurrency which allows for transactions between users without the need for an intermediary, such as a bank, as well as providing a certain level of anonymity.

eBay-style reviews and ranking systems on many cryptomarkets mean the quality of drugs can be significantly higher than that sold on the street, and there is less risk of buying narcotics cut with harmful chemicals. 

“Product quality is really the biggest attraction, when you buy from a cryptomarket, there are potentially thousands of reviews which provide semi-independent opinions,” said James Martin, a lecturer at Australia's Macquarie University who focuses on cryptomarkets.

"There is a lot of competition on the market, with thousands and thousands of dealers competing for your custom."

Last year, a Google-style search engine for the Dark Net – Grams – was launched, allowing users to search multiple cryptomarkets and thousands of drug listings.

Easy access to sophisticated drug distribution channels can have significant impact for users and facilitate substance addiction, warned Dave McGuire, a clinical supervisor at drug rehabilitation centre The Cabin.

“Hong Kong is high stressed, fast paced and high moneyed ... Coupled with high availability [of drugs and alcohol], the city sets a scene ripe for addiction.”

Tracking down the operators of Dark Net drug markets can be an incredibly difficult task for law enforcement.

"Police agencies don't typically have the expertise in online matters as they are used to conventional counter-narcotics operations, but online investigation is a new game and requires a different set of skills," Martin said.

“A conventional counter-narcotic operation would see transactions recorded, suspects arrested at the scene- a compelling package to present in court. But with online, you’ve got a dealer in a completely different country, transaction details you can’t access, and when the drugs are delivered to the door, it’s hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the recipient knew what was in the package.”

Hong Kong police said in a statement that they conducted "proactive cyber patrols of websites, discussion forums and social networking sites with a view to identifying drug trafficking activities via the web".

The Customs and Excise Department said it was "closely monitoring the latest drug smuggling trends through intelligence gathering".

Though law enforcement agencies have been able to take action against some cryptomarkets, the number of sites operating in multiple different jurisdictions makes a concerted approach incredibly difficult. 

Following the arrest of Silk Road founder Ulbricht, which came as the result of a months-long investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies in the US and other countries, the FBI was able to seize the popular Dark Net market's servers and shut it down. However, other sites soon sprang up to fill the gap in the market, one service which tracks Dark Net markets estimates there are more than 25 currently in operation around the world. 

Fortunately for Hong Kong police, use of such markets is still fairly uncommon in the city, according to Angelique Tam, executive director of the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers (SARDA).

Tam told the Post that while they do have patients who use cryptomarkets, due to Hong Kong's small size and established trafficking infrastructure, buying drugs in the city is "so convenient you don't really need to use [the Dark Net]".

Counsellors at The Cabin also noted that the ease of acquiring drugs in Hong Kong meant that their clients, some of whom had used cryptomarkets in the past, didn't see the need to use the Dark Net at present.

However, Tam warned that given the ease of use and anonymity of cryptomarkets, they could quickly become "very infectious" and explode in popularity.

SARDA's annual report noted an increase in "hidden drug trends" with a particular rise in narcotics use among those from "middle-income backgrounds and professionals". It also warned of a lowering in the average age teenagers started taking drugs. Both groups are common users of cryptomarkets in other countries. 

A 2014 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identified Hong Kong as a key port in the international drugs trade and also a major hub of narcotics manufacturing, while another UN report released this year warned that "as dark web technology grows and becomes increasingly accessible ... drug trafficking [is moving] increasingly into the dark markets".

The prevalence of existing trafficking networks and increased police action against street level dealers could make the city ripe for an explosion in online drug markets.

As if to drive this point home, a new cryptomarket has appeared in the last month, offering everything from cannabis and psychedelics to ecstasy and heroin.

Its name? Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong Market.