The network of hidden websites known as the dark web is optimized for privacy and secrecy, so it’s naturally going to be difficult to map what goes on there. Still, two U.K.-based researchers are planning to spend a year creating the most comprehensive picture yet of the dark web economy.
Specifically, they hope to learn where dark web sellers are located, and how the dark web’s lines of trade — estimated to consist mostly of sales of illicit drugs — correlate with those of the real world.
“The original vision for the internet was as some sort of distinct unique ‘cyberspace,’ connected but detached from the real-world,” said Mark Graham, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University and the lead on the project.
“Internet geographers have tried to challenge that vision: showing that the internet simply digitally mediates, or augments, existing relationships rather than creating ones that happen beyond the realm of the real world.”
The project will also get a sense of how much of the dark web economy is actually illegal drugs. “I am especially interested in weapons and counterfeits that are being sold online and hope to understand why more are being sold from some places than others,” Graham said.
Previous efforts have been made to map the dark web economy. One of the most comprehensive was done by the security researcher known as Gwern Branwen, who scraped dark web marketplaces weekly and sometimes daily between 2013 and 2015. He ended up documenting 89 marketplaces and more than 27 related forums. He posted the archive online, where it has been a valuable resource for independent researchers as well as institutions as erudite as The Economist.
Another study of the dark web trade was done by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University from 2013 to 2015. (For those keeping score, that’s the same university, but a different group, that came under fire for deanonymizing Tor users and sharing data with the federal government.) That study found that the dark web economy was no longer explosively growing, as it had been in the early days of the infamous Silk Road black market, but was instead fluctuating between $100 million and $180 million a year in total sales, with the most popular items being MDMA and marijuana.
The dark web drug economy is constantly changing. Markets get busted or hacked, or it turns out they were being run by scammers all along. For this reason alone, Graham and partner Joss Wright’s project will contribute new understanding.
“The locations and where things are happening can shift quite significantly,” said Wright, a cybersecurity expert who also studies illegal wildlife trafficking. “You’re never going to draw a line under the work that’s going on here.”
However, the most interesting aspect of their project is the focus on real-world geography.
Graham and Wright aim to figure out where sellers are located based on their listings, and then analyze what is being sold where. How many heroin sellers are in Germany? How many MDMA sellers are in the U.S.? What proportion of the trade happens in the U.S. and Europe versus the rest of the world? Can data from the dark web be used as a proxy for traditional illicit trade that is harder to track?
The dark web drug economy is constantly changing
Anecdotally, and noting that they haven’t started the project yet so can’t be sure, Wright said the dark web is mostly an American and European phenomenon.
“It’s a really good tool for educated Westerners to buy relatively low-risk products that are viewed as fairly victimless. For the drug market in the West, it’s really nice,” he said. “If you want to buy rhino horn in Vietnam, where you can walk down to a marketplace on the street and buy it with almost no risk, you’re not going to bother going online and setting up a bitcoin account and setting up Tor and looking for it.”
The pair are still in the planning phase, but they are hiring a data scientist and estimate they will start data collection in early summer. The project will go for one year, but if they find a line of research that is worth pursuing — such as any indication that dark web market data can be used to make real-world policy — they may try to get more funding for it and potentially interview dark web users at a later stage.
The biggest challenge remains how to get this information and how much to trust it. Graham and Wright plan to use profiles and listings, where sellers specify their location. That doesn’t account for sellers who lie about where they are, and it doesn’t include “private” listings that don’t come up in a darknet market search, but can be shared directly by sellers. There is also the possibility that entire websites exist that they aren’t aware of.
“It’s entirely possible that there are marketplaces out there that are invite-only, that the address to get to them is passed word of mouth,” Wright said. “There could be things that we’re missing.”