Want to ban guns? Ban Internet (Dark Web) first!

Gun grabbers need to realize that gun control policies affect exclusively the law-abiding citizen. Criminals won’t take heed to any regulations and can easily get their hands on guns.

In this article, we explore the Dark Web to see if illegal guns can truly be acquired on the fly with just a few clicks away.

Many parts of this article cite data reprinted from UNODA Occasional Papers No. 32, October 2018 by Dr.Giacomo Persi Paoli (September 2016 – July 2017).

What exactly is the Dark Web?

The Internet can be conceptually broken down into 3 layers.

  1. Surface web or Clear web – Open, freely accessible and searchable, users typically use search engines to find and consume content on these websites.
  2. Deep web – Refers to all the unsearchable parts of the Internet such as
    • Local intranets (e.g., business and home local area networks).
    • Membership-only section (e.g., online banking services, medical records, email inbox)
  3. Dark web – Portion of the deep web that is encrypted such that it requires specific software packages to navigate (e.g., Tor and I2P), ensuring user’s anonymity. Also, these encrypted sites lack the DNS and IP addresses that usually make websites identifiable.
  4. Due to the anonymity nature of the Dark web, many people use it to trade illegal items, such as drugs, illegal chemicals, illegal firearms, counterfeit items and child pornography.

    Dark web is, by itself not illegal. Rather the activities done on the particular web determines whether it’s a legitimate web or not.

Shares of Surface web, Deep web and Dark web are as follow :

Shares of surface, deep and dark web
Source : https://www.itamsoft.com/news/blackfog-privacy-enterprise-now-available-identity-theft-dark-web-protection/

Table 1 : Shares of Surface, Deep and Dark web

Type Percentage
Surface web 4%
Deep web 90%
Dark web 6%

Payment on Dark web is often made through Cryptocurrencies

Other than the encrypted site that requires a specific software to navigate, Cryptocurrencies (e.g., Bitcoin, Litecoin or Monero) enable obfuscated and difficult to trace transactions, obscuring the link between real-world identities and the personas adopted on dark web marketplaces.

Silk Road Payment System

Silk_road_payment system

Bitcoin is the most accepted and widespread currency on the Dark web. That said, other cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, Ripple, Monero can be used to facilitate trades.

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2 types of marketplaces on the Dark web

There are, at present, 2 principal types of marketplaces found on the dark web:

  1. Cryptomarkets – 3rd party intermediary similar to legal online marketplaces like eBay or Amazon. Typically, accounts must be set up to view and transact on the marketplaces. Pre-defined product categories are provided for simple browsing.
  2. Vendor information, vendor reviews, discussion forums, guides for vendors and customers, tips to minimizing the risk of detection, scam reports are available to facilitate trade on many Cryptomarkets.

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    Furthermore, Cryptomarkets provide third-party services that afford a degree of payment protection to customers: escrow (in which payment is released to vendors only after customers have received and are satisfied with their purchases) and third-party dispute adjudication.

    Marketplace administrators (3rd party intermediary) earn fees in return for their services.

  3. Vendor shops – Online shops set up by individuals or businesses to sell their own products and services, these vendor shops typically have much simpler visual interface and fewer listings when compared to cryptomarkets.
  4. Vendor shops tend to be more specialized and often trade on reputation track records earned via cryptomarket.

For potential buyers, finding cryptomarkets is easier, in relative terms, than identifying a reliable and trusted vendor to purchase goods from.

Infographic showing the Geographies of Tor

Geographies_of_Tor
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license., Author : Stefano.desabbata, Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Geographies_of_Tor.png

How to access the Dark Web? – Download, Install, and Voila?

Lyburd, 18-year-old who plotted a massacre at his former school in Newcastle, said buying the Glock was like “buying a bar of chocolate”.

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In the past, getting into the dark web was very easy. All you had to do was download a dark web browser (“Tor” for instance), install, then you’re good to go.

However, due to heightened scrutiny and malwares, additional steps to access Dark web securely are recommended.:

  1. Use VPN (Virtual Private Network) service with an internet kill switch to hide your real IP address
  2. A new VPN access model

  3. Employ Virtual Box to run other operating systems, such as Tails Linux, on sandboxed virtual machine to protect you from Malwares

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The Weakest Link that could Compromise Anonymity : Delivery

Vendors must rely on postal services to ship physical products (such as drugs, ammunition and weapons) to customers.

A person signing parcel delivery papers
“Offline” activities, such as delivery are viewed as vulnerable spots for Dark web users.

Cryptomarket users identify these “offline” activities of dark web transactions as the primary source of risk for detection and apprehension by law enforcement.

For vendors, these activities include sourcing packaging materials and making drop-offs into postal systems. For buyers, receiving deliveries is identified as a risky aspect.

Here’s an example case where a Dark web vendor was convicted on Unlawful Dealing in Firearms.

Scams are more frequent due to untraceability

With little accountability, scams by vendors, market administrators or even law enforcement honeypot vendors appear at higher frequency compared to legitimate markets.

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Quantitative data on Dark Web firearms sales

This quantitative data is Reprinted from UNODA Occasional Papers No. 32, October 2018 by Dr.Giacomo Persi Paoli (September 2016 – July 2017).

Before we dive into the data, here are its methodology and limitations

Methodology

The project team employed a mixed-methods approach that included the following:

  • Review of relevant literature
  • Review of surface web resources
  • Crawling, scraping and analysis of cryptomarket data
  • Consultation with policy and law enforcement experts

Limitations

  • Data collection was conducted from 19 – 25 September 2016 and represents only a snapshot of cryptomarkets activities.
  • Not all cryptomarkets were investigated by this research.
  • red Notice sign
    Every study has its limitations.
  • Sales data on cryptomarkets were estimated using feedback from buyers. But no obligation exists for buyers to leave feedback (i.e., feedback is under-representing sales), or vendors could use techniques to inflate the number of feedback entries (i.e., over-representing sales).
  • Sales estimates are for cryptomarkets only, as no data were available for vendor shops sales, potentially resulting in an underestimation of the overall size and value of the trade.
  • Image analysis was not conducted on listed products due to the inability to scrape images using the available tool.
  • Given the impossibility to determine with certainty the nature of a vendor (scammer, law enforcement or real vendor), the results are likely to include listings that do not correspond to real vendors.
  • Vendor location data is based on the analysis of the (self-reported) “Ship from” field of each listing. This is deemed only as an imperfect proxy for country of vendor operation, because vendors may ship via intermediaries in other countries or indicate a region or other large area instead (e.g., “Europe”, “Worldwide”).
  • Locations of buyers is exclusively based on vendors’ stated willingness to ship to certain locations. When vendors are willing to ship worldwide, the data available does not allow the identification of the specific destination.

Number of Cryptomarkets with Firearms

E-commerce concept graphic

During the study, 18 Cryptomarkets were accessed and inspected.

Table 2 : Cryptomarkets Accessed and Inspected

Type Number %
Markets that were accessed and inspected 18 100%
Markets allowing (or not explicitly prohibiting) firearms sales 15 83%
Markets with dedicated categories for firearms 9 50%
Markets where firearms listings were identified through search 8 44%

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Number of Firearms listings in Cryptomarkets

A specifically designed crawler and scraper collected “digital traces” left in connection to market transactions from cryptomarkets.

Data collection took place during 19-25 September 2016. The resulting dataset spanned 12 cryptomarkets and generated 167,693 listings, of which 811 (0.48%) were identified as arms related.

Table 3 : Breakdown of 811 Arms-Related Listings

Product Number of listings % of arms related listings Number of listings % of arms related listings
Firearms 339 42
Digital products 222 27
Other weapons 178 22
Explosives 6 1
Sold alone + in combination
Ammunition 54 7 98 12
Accessories 8 1 66 8
Parts and components 4 <1 8 1
Total 811 100

“+ in combination” section refers to when ammunition, accessories and parts were bundled along with firearms as “package deal”.

From data, bundled deal seems to be much more popular.

Firearms contributed to 0.2% of total Dark web listings and 42% of arms-related category on the Dark web.

Estimating price mark ups of Firearms in Cryptomarkets

A price analysis was conducted on the entire dataset of 811 listings both to identify the market value of certain type of weapons and as a first step towards the estimation of the gross revenue generated by arms trade on the dark web.

All 811 listing descriptions were reviewed for explicit reference to holding prices and none was found. Only one listing had an unfeasibly high price (US$ 99,999) and it was removed from any price analyses.

Unfortunately the study did not provide detailed description and models of each listings. Instead, aggregate data is provided.

Table 4 : Price Per Unit of Firearms Listed for Sale”.

n Mean Min Max STD
Pistols
New 24 $705 $245 $2,728 476.73
Used 45 $1,079 $218 $2,195 545.8
Unspecified 78 $865 $179 $2,200 530.59
Sub-machine guns
New 0
Used 1 $2,495 $2,495 $2,495
Unspecified 4 $5,006 $3,058 $10,264 3,510.5
Rifles
New 3 $3,749 $2,000 $7,046 2,857.32
Used 4 $771 $329 $1,250 394.97
Unspecified 18 $2,272 $1,000 $4,000 1,019.69

*Data on bundled products (n=95) were omitted due to irrelevant comparison.

Further price analysis was conducted for the most common makes of handguns (i.e., those with more than 10 listings) to provide a more accurate reference point for price comparisons between the dark web price, offline (black) market value and manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP)/recommended retail price (RRP).

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Table 5 : Price per unit of handguns listed for sale for the most common makes

n Mean Min Max STD
Glock 28 $1,189 $245 $2,200 623.62
Colt 21 $853 $424 $2,011 439.29
Sig Sauer 8 $705 $390 $1,500 333.48
Ruger 16 $752 $314 $1,700 471.33
Beretta 7 $1,027 $419 $2,000 624.76
Smith & Wesson 9 $799 $179 $1,850 469.97

*Data on bundled products (n=62) were omitted due to irrelevant comparison.

Retail price for new Glocks in the United States can vary between $459 to $749, depending on the model. On cryptomarkets, the mean price is about 50% higher. Beretta pistols also show similar mark-ups.

For other makes (e.g., Smith & Wesson), the mean price appears to be more aligned with the retail price.

Estimating market value of Firearms in Cryptomarkets

coin pile

Sales number is estimated by using listings and feedback data. For each listing, the project team calculated the number of days between the date of data collection for each market and the date of the listing’s oldest feedback. The number of feedbacks for each listing was then used to calculate the rate of feedbacks per day. This rate was multiplied by 30 to provide an estimate of monthly transactions.

Also, Dark web markets that fall into the vendor shop category do not provide information that can be used to estimate numbers of sales generated; therefore, sales were estimated only for cryptomarkets.

With this method, estimates presented in this study could underestimate  the overall size and value of the trade.

Table 6 : Estimated gross revenue by product type

Product type Active listings % Transactions (per month) Gross revenue (per month)
Firearms (N = 339) 44 14 56 $74,733
Ammunition (N = 54) 32 59 35 $2,954
Explosives (N = 6) 3 50 2 $541
Other weapons (N = 178) 75 42 101 $3,616
Digital products (N = 222) 50 23 41 $212
Total 204 188 235 $82,056

*Active listings were defined as “listings that had generated at least one transaction at the time data collection was conducted.”

Overall, based on the data available, the value of arms trade on the 12 cryptomarkets analysed in this study can be estimated in the region of US$ 80,000 per month.

Where firearms are shipped from

Given the relatively small size of the dataset (811 listings), the project team reviewed each listing to identify other clues that could be used to increase the accuracy or level of confidence in assessing the “ship from” country or region.

World-airline-routemap-2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license., Author : Jpatokal, Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:World-airline-routemap-2009.png

The project team employed the following criteria (in order of priority):

  1. The country of origin as specified in the listing description
  2. The self-attested “ship from” of each listing
  3. The “ship from” country on other listings by the same vendor
  4. The “ship from” country of a vendor on other cryptomarkets
  5. The “ship to” category, where a single destination country is specified
  6. The most prevalent “ship to” destination, from the same vendor over many cryptomarkets
  7. Analysing the “supplier ID” for an indication of the country of origin (e.g., “balkanweapons”, “dutchmarket” and “USuser”)

Table 7 : “Shipped From” and estimated gross revenue data

Country N listings N Active listings Transactions (per month) Gross revenue (per month)
Multiple/unknown 40 16 7.7 $29,526
United States 201 16 30.5 $24,987
Netherlands 8 3 4.5 $8,088
United Kingdom 5 1 6.0 $5,043
Germany 18 4 4.1 $3,453
Europe 8 4 2.2 $2,514
Australia 11 2 0.6 $1,121
Austria 1 0 0.0 $0
Canada 2 0 0.0 $0
Denmark 44 0 0.0 $0
Slovenia 1 0 0.0 $0
Total 339 46 55.6 $74,733

*Active listings were defined as “listings that had generated at least one transaction at the time data collection was conducted.”

United States appear to be a popular source for arms. Possible explanation is that it’s relatively easier to acquire firearms in the U.S.. Additionally, vendors might use “Shipped from US” as a sign of quality, whether their products are really shipped from U.S. or not.

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Where firearms are shipped to

Information on the locations of buyers is exclusively based on vendors’ stated willingness to ship to certain locations. When vendors are willing to ship worldwide, the data available does not allow the identification of the specific destination.

Table 8 : “Shipped To” and estimated gross revenue data

Country N listings N Active listings Transactions (per month) Gross revenue (per month)
Worldwide 307 38 49.2 $68,561
Europe 9 4 4.3 $4,154
United States 7 1 0.8 $1,042
Germany 2 2 1.0 $813
Australia 4 1 0.1 $163
Multiple 3 0 0.0 $0
North America 3 0 0.0 $0
Northern Europe 1 0 0.0 $0
Oceania 3 0 0.0 $0
Total 339 46 $74,733

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Shipping Techniques to Avoid Detection

The packaging of firearms, explosives and other weapons must be sophisticated in order to disguise the consignment from customs and postal service screening.

Some of the common techniques include:

  • Disassembling firearms into parts, then ship in multiple packages (often 2-3 parcels)
  • Shipping firearms in “consumer electronics castings” such as printers or TV sets, or in a “music instrument case with a false hard bottom”
  • Shipments of grenades were limited to three a parcel (i.e., “more grenades would result in a large and heavy packet…”).
  • Vendors often advise customers on certain names to use for delivery in order to increase the chances for parcels to escape detection by the authorities
  • Dead drop delivery model involves a “dropman” hiding a consignment of pre-packaged and labelled drug deals in a number of suitably discreet offline locations.

 

Is Dark web arms sales small and insignificant?

Admittedly, $80,000 sales per month is not an impressive number.

But the study might underestimate (as well as overestimate) due to some limitations mentioned earlier, which are :

  • The team Inspected only 12 cryptomarkets. There are many cryptomarkets left uninspected.
  • Data collection was done only for a week.
  • Monthly sales were estimated using “estimated customer’s feedback per day” times 30. (See “Estimating market value of Firearms in Cryptomarkets” section for more details) Thus the study did not take into account where customer’s don’t leave any feedback. Note that on average, only 2-4% of Amazon customers leave feedback. And we cannot determine whether Dark web user’s feedback rate is more or less than Amazon’s customers.
  • If we, for the sake of estimation, assume that only 4% of Dark web users leave feedback, estimated sales would be approximately 2 million dollars per month.
  • Sales estimates are for cryptomarkets only, as no data were available for vendor shops sales.

But even if we adjust for these underestimations, the sales generated from Dark web is likely going to be much less than the estimated $17 billion generated from legitimate Guns & Ammunition industry in the US.

Does this mean that the Dark web arms trade is insignificant? Surely not.

GLOCK_29_10mm resize
40% of criminals acquire firearms from illegal sources.

According to a study conducted by Bureau of Justice Statistics on state prison inmates convicted of gun-related crimes in 1997, only 13.9% of criminals acquired firearms through retail outlets. The majority of criminals acquire guns through family/friends (39.6%) and from street/illegal sources (39.2%).

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Table 9 : Source of firearms for State prison inmates, 1997

Source of Firearms Percentage
Purchased or traded from retail outlet 13.9%
– Retail store 8.3
– Pawnshop 3.8
– Flea market 1.0
– Gun show 0.7
Family or friend 39.6%
– Purchased or traded 12.8
– Rented or borrowed 18.5
– Other 8.3
Street/illegal source 39.2%
– Theft or burglary 9.9
– Drug dealer/off street 20.8
– Fence/black market 8.4
Other 7.4%
Total 100%

*Combined percentage not 100% due to rounding errors.

The key takeaway here is that criminals can acquire firearms through black markets. And the Dark web probably have made this task even easier.

Policy-makers should focus on regulating black markets, both online and offline, rather than disrupting legitimate markets.

If gun sales regulations on normal markets are stricter, it would likely be tougher for criminals to acquire guns through friends/families. But criminals could easily switch to buy from the Dark web or offline black markets.

One might argue that gun prices in black market are higher, thus increasing the cost for criminals. But rising prices mean more profit. This will likely attract more criminals to do gun trafficking, similar to drugs and sex trafficking, which could lead to the rise of new gun cartels.

Another sure achievement for gun control policies would be the disarmament of law-abiding citizen. Criminals would have all the guns they want, and law-abiding citizen will be left defenseless. Not a desired outcome for anybody, except criminals.
 

Conclusion

Dark web provides another channel for illegal firearms trade. Data from research suggests that firearms market size on Dark web is relatively small compared to that of the legitimate ones in the US.

However, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where stricter gun control pushes more criminals to purchase firearms via anonymous and secure Dark web.

Gun control policies will not stop criminals from getting their guns. Rather, they will leave law-abiding citizen defenseless. Policy-makers should, instead, rack their brains on how to regulate illegal black markets and the Dark web.

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