The dark web is being used to buy conventional firearms rather than weapons of war, and at legal-market prices, new US research shows.
When Thomas Holt from Michigan State University and colleagues started looking into these underground operations, they found that 64% of the products advertised were handguns, 17% were semi-automatic long guns, and only 4% were fully automatic long guns.
Weapons such as these can be bought legally in the US, and in some other countries, at similar prices, suggesting the dark web customers aren’t able to buy guns legally in their country, or don’t want to be identified even if it is legal.
The researchers dug into shops, or single-owner websites, using Tor, an anonymising browser popular with dark web users. They employed a scaping tool to track disguised vendors selling firearms, as well as to identify patterns of their operations.
Common threads between the sellers included: vendors deliberately selling hand and long guns; the use of bitcoin for payment; sellers’ shops requesting PO boxes to ship the product; and how sellers delivered the guns.
From these consistencies, collected between February and May 2016, Holt and colleagues were able to draw conclusions – as well as ask more pointed questions for follow-up research.
“The sellers were very clear about how the transaction would go, which underscored the need for consistent secrecy,” says Holt.
“Some profile names indicated that they operated out of Europe, but there’s little else to tell about who these people are.
“The sellers would oftentimes say they’d ship the product in separate pieces and hide them in books, shoes, cocoa, computer parts and other innocuous things, as well as to be alerted if a part was held up in customs.”
Holt adds that surprisingly little is known about the dark web weapons trade but “we shouldn’t take these markets as trivial because they could grow, travel and change very quickly”.
“While technology doesn’t allow us as researchers to know who these sellers and buyers are,” he explains, “we can confirm that the transactions are very real, that they’re international in scope, and that the buyers could be violating major government regulations and guidelines.
“This market could cater to major violence and the danger is we don’t know to what extent.”
The findings are published in a paper in the journal Deviant Behaviour.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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