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The darknet – a wild west for fake coronavirus ‘cures ‘? The stark reality is more difficult (and regulated)
The coronavirus pandemic has spawned reports of unregulated health products and fake cures being sold on the dark web. These generally include black market PPE, illicit medications such as the widely touted “miracle” drug chloroquine, and fake COVID-19 “cures” including blood supposedly from recovered coronavirus patients.
These dealings have yet again focused public attention with this little-understood element of the internet. Nearly 10 years as it started being used on a significant scale, the dark web continues to be a lucrative safe haven for traders in a range of illegal goods and services, especially illicit drugs.
Black market trading on the dark web is carried out primarily through darknet marketplaces or cryptomarkets. They are anonymised trading platforms that directly connect buyers and sellers of a variety of illegal goods and services – just like legitimate trading websites such as for example eBay.
So just how do darknet marketplaces work? And how much illegal trading of COVID-19-related products is happening via these online spaces?
Not a free-for-all
There are still more than a dozen darknet marketplaces in operation. Protected by powerful encryption technology, authorities around the globe have largely didn’t contain their growth. A steadily increasing proportion of illicit drug users around the world report sourcing their drugs online. In Australia, we have one of the World Market Onion – http://kmcp.org/board_ZZiP52/337488’s highest concentrations of darknet drug vendors per capita.
Despite popular belief, cryptomarkets are not the “lawless spaces” they’re often presented as in the news. Market prohibitions exist on all mainstream cryptomarkets. Universally prohibited goods and services include: hitman services, trafficked human organs and snuff movies.
Although cryptomarkets lie away from realm of state regulation, each one of these is initiated and maintained by a central administrator who, along with employees or associates, is responsible for the market’s security, dispute resolution between buyers and sellers, and the charging of commissions on transactions.
Administrators are also ultimately in charge of determining what can and can’t be sold on the cryptomarket. These decisions are likely informed by:
the attitudes of the surrounding community comprising buyers and sellers
the extent of consumer demand and supply for certain products
the revenues a niche site makes from commissions charged on transactions
and the perceived “heat” that could be attracted from police force in the trading of particularly dangerous illegal goods and services.
Experts delve in to the dark web
A written report from the Australian National University published a week ago looks at several hundred coronavirus-related products on the market across several cryptomarkets, including supposed vaccines and antidotes.
While the research confirms some unscrupulous dark web traders are indeed exploiting the pandemic and seeking to defraud naïve customers, these records should really be contextualised with a few important caveats.
Firstly, how many dodgy covid-related products available on the dark web is relatively small. According to the research, they take into account about 0.2% of most listed items. The overwhelming most of products were those we’re already familiar with – particularly illicit drugs such as for example cannabis and MDMA.
Also, while the study focused on products listed for sale, these are usually listings for products that either do no exist or are listed with the precise intention to defraud a customer.
Thus, the particular sale of fake coronavirus “cures” on the dark web is likely minimal, at best.
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