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You can buy almost everything on the web, pay digitally and have it delivered to your doorstep. Unfortunately, the same goes for drugs.
Earlier this month, the Hyderabad Narcotic Enforcement Wing (H-NEW) busted a drug-trafficking mafia being operated solely through the dark web and social media. Payments too were made through crypto wallets, Hyderabad police commissioner C V Anand said.
However, this is not the first time tech has been used for illicit activities such as drug trade. In 2021, Bangalore police registered 30 narcotics involving the dark web. Tech-savvy narcotics vendors are becoming a headache for the Indian police, who often lack technical expertise.
Tech-savvy narcotic vendors
The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) made its first arrest of an alleged dark web narcotics vendor in 2020. Then 21 years old, Dipu Singh was arrested by the NCB in Alambagh, Lucknow, on charges of selling psychotropic drugs on dark web marketplaces such as Majestic Garden and Empire Market in exchange for cryptocurrency.
Singh allegedly sold drugs to clients in European countries like Romania and Spain, and the US. Ever since, we have had many arrests across the country where vendors were selling narcotics through the dark web.
In November 2020, NCB seized 20 LSD blots from Malad, purchased by a drug peddler from Mumbai using Bitcoin. In 2021, the NCB arrested Makarand P Adivirkar, often referred to as the ‘Crypto King’, who used Bitcoins to purchase narcotic drugs.
During the same year, a youth from Kerala landed in NCB custody after purchasing ecstasy pills worth nearly Rs 20 lakh on the dark web using Bitcoin. The accused was to receive the contraband from Germany through the foreign post-office in Chamarajpet.
Over the years, the sale of narcotics over the dark web has spiked significantly. The World Drug Report stated that around 90% of the sales transactions on the dark web are related to narcotics. Tor, originally developed by the US government to protect intelligence information, and the emergence of cryptocurrency have led to the growth of the narcotics market on the dark web.
The NCB revealed that drug seizures from courier consignments soared 250% in the country since the pandemic struck.
Dark web offers anonymity – the entry points and pathways are encrypted which allows all parties to conduct their business anonymously, without disclosing information such as user location and IP addresses. This allows user searches and actions to remain traceless.
Even the law enforcement authorities can’t track who purchased what on the dark web. Further, most drugs acquired from the dark web arrive through the international post. For example, LSD, one of the popular synthetic drugs sold in the country, comes in the form of a sheet of paper. So it becomes extremely challenging for authorities to find it among other larger consignments.
The government and the NCB are aware of the growing menace of the dark web. The Narendra Modi-led administration considers narcotics a national threat and has launched initiatives such as Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan (NMBA), launched in December 2021.
Minister of state for finance in Uttar Pradesh, Pankaj Choudhary, in a written reply to a question raised in the Lok Sabha, reaffirmed that the government is taking measures to prevent the use of cryptocurrencies for narcotics and arms smuggling.
Besides setting up e-surveillance and monitoring systems, the government is also training the police on cyber and forensic technologies. Further, the police departments are coordinating with foreign drug law enforcement agencies.
The NCB is seeking external help in the form of experts to help them with financial data analysis, forensic audit and probing complex drug crimes that involve cryptocurrencies and deals concealed through multi-layered transactions.
Besides, the NCB also launched a ‘Darkathon’ for cyber experts with the motive to find countermeasures to unravel the anonymity of markets in the dark web.
Recently, the UP government set up an Anti-Narcotics Task Force (ANTF) to deal with the menace of narcotics being traded via dark web. Reportedly, ANTF has prepared a roadmap to completely eradicate narcotics trade from the dark web and the process has already begun.
In Bengaluru, law enforcement authorities made many arrests by tracking UPI transactions. In 2020, India’s Silicon Valley recorded the highest number of narcotics cases in the country. A senior officer said, “Tracing crime requires a mix of social engineering and technology. There are various methods used by us to understand the social milieu of the dark web.”
The Bengaluru police is training its personnels with the technical know-how and some of them are learning programming languages such as Python, which are useful in decrypting some of the encryption in the dark web. They are also familiarising themselves with certain lingo used on the dark web.
Similarly, in Telangana, the state Police have introduced DOPAMS (Drug Offenders Profiling, Analysis & Monitoring System) – a software that helps the police build, update, and search profiles of known drug offenders.
The software helps the investigating officers to identify offenders based on the drug they deal in and the areas they operate in. DOPAMS helps the police identify the hot spots and monitor the cultivation and supply of drugs. It also maintains a database which is regularly updated with data from across the state. Hence, it facilitates centralised monitoring of all drug-related cases reported across the state.