I am sitting with a senior police officer in his office to discuss drug abuse, and he pulls out his smartphone to show me a video. The video shows a teenager sitting in front of a desktop at a government office. He is seen waiting for the person behind the smartphone to give him a cue, and when he gets it, he starts logging into an onion router. He explains every step as he proceeds to order illegal drugs from an online bazaar on the dark web. His audience? Senior police officers in Hyderabad who were attempting to crack down on drug abuse. The video was recorded for an investigation and was shown to this reporter on conditions of anonymity. The boy in the video was the son of a known acquaintance who agreed to hold a demonstration for senior police officers. “He ordered some drugs, and it arrived at the address a few days later. It was a part of our investigation, and we traced the parcel back to Europe. But we were surprised at the ease with which someone can order drugs off the internet. We cannot track this online,” a senior officer in Hyderabad says.
“The dark web has become a major source of all illicit drugs now, especially cocaine, LSD and MDMA, which are not produced in India. Producing psychedelics needs a high level of expertise and experience, so it arrives from Europe, Russia and Israel,” an NCB officer says. An event manager in Bengaluru says that his ‘friends’ had recently sourced MDMA “straight from the Netherlands” through the dark web. Another officer points out, “That’s why many of the dealers are educated because they need to know how to operate the dark web.”
‘Dark web’ is that part of the internet which cannot be accessed without specific software and authorisations. The part of the internet that we access every day, like news websites or social networks, are the easily accessible ‘surface web’. Then there is the content on ‘deep web’, which do not need specific authorisations to be accessed, but are not indexed on search engines, so it takes some digging to find them. Dark web has encrypted networks like TOR, and the content on them can be accessed only if you have the keys to it.
The reason why the dark web is the preferred medium for all illegal activities, from child pornography and sex trade to arms smuggling, is that no user on the dark web can be traced. You can get the keys, but no one else can access them.
Narcotics officers are noticing that in nearly every seizure of synthetic drugs in Indian metros, the source of the drug was the dark web. Users buy bitcoins with real money (bitcoin transactions are also untraceable), and use the bitcoins to order drugs online. The vendors could be sitting anywhere in the world, and they send the drugs through courier services.
Davidson Devasirvatham, Commissioner of Police, Madurai City, who was the Zonal Director (DIG) of NCB Chennai earlier, says, “A few years ago, the dealers of LSD and MDMA were international travellers, like rave party DJs, event managers, and hippie tourists. They were the ones bringing it into the country. But now, things have changed drastically.”
The change in trend is definite and can be seen across cases. In most recent cases booked by the Telangana Excise Department (which has been leading the crackdown in Hyderabad since they got powers under the NDPS Act in 2016), the dark web has been the source of the drugs. Roshan Nair, who was convicted recently for distributing LSD in Chennai, also confessed to buying drugs online through dark websites like Silkroad 2.0, and vendors like T5 and Testalled. For the financial transactions, he bought bitcoins from localbitcoins.com and was also a member of forums like webhigh.org. Street-level dealers are also reportedly sourcing drugs from the dark web now.
Cybersecurity expert Nitish Chandan of the Cyberpeace Foundation has provided TNM with screenshots of drugs being sold on the dark web.
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