Can the trafficking of arms on the dark web be quantified?

The dark web can be defined as the part of the web which not only conceals itself from search engines and directories (deep web), but also resides in encrypted sites takes advantage of anonymity to exchange information. This anonymity can be sought by protecting some areas of privacy, but it can also be used in order to carry out certain criminal activities, such as the exchange of files containing child pornography, the trafficking of drugs and weapons. Academics from the Rand Corporation and from the University of Manchester wanted to gain an empirical insight and quantify the role arms trafficking has had on this environment. In their study Behind the curtain. The illegal arms, explosives and munitions trade on the dark web  wanted to answer three research questions:

  1. What is the magnitude and scope of arms trafficking and related products on the dark web?
  2. What is the potential impact of arms trafficking facilitated by the dark web on the weapons black market as a whole?
  3. What are the potential implications of arms trafficking facilitated by the dark web for security agencies and political decision-making bodies both on the national context and the international one?

To answer these questions, apart from a review of the existing academic literature and interviews with experts (police officers and public administrators), they have obtained, gathered and analysed data related to this illegal arms market. They recognise that their study has some limitations (for example, a limited time in which to gather the information; that sales can only be estimated rather than calculated, or that it cannot be determined which arms are fake or which were put on sale by the police), meaning that that there remains the option of continuing to research this environment and they invite other academics to do so.

Conclusions they reached include the following:

  • There is a high perception that a proportion of the weapons made available are fake or simply bait for the police. However, the sale of real arms exists and, therefore, this fake potential must not lead to the risk of the circulation of real weapons being ignored or minimised by society.
  • The sale of weapons detected were, on the one hand, on the so-called “cryptomarkets”, internet shops with multiple sellers where a virtual currency is used to pay, and, on the other hand, in single-seller areas, without intermediaries.
  • 811 lists or packets of products were located, mainly related to firearms, and, among these, pistols, rifles and semi-automatic weapons. The munitions found in these markets are mainly sold with the arms, and are seldom sold separately. Also worthy of note is the fact that underlying the sale of weapons is the sale of digital products (manuals explaining how to manufacture explosives or 3D images of weapons or their parts).
  • The researchers estimate that 136 sales are made every month, amounting to 80,000 dollars.
  • The trafficking of arms is still limited in volume in comparison the trafficking of illegal products as a whole in black markets on the dark web.
  • Police forces face operational and technical challenges to respond to this aspect of arms trafficking. Therefore, awareness of the risks involved is necessary to have the necessary tools to be able to fight it.

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