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Wednesday, 20 September 2017 12:39 am

Kiwis use secret internet ‘supermarket’ to get drugs

Dec 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Front Page Layout, Lead Story, News

A website called Gawker broke the news in June that an internet trading system offering drugs and other illegal products is operating under the radar of global and governmental regulation.

CALLUM VALENTINE investigated and found the TradeMe-like underground supermarket is being used by New Zealanders. Here he relates the experiences of Bruce*, a Kiwi who gets his drugs shipped to a post office box:

IT’S been described as the Amazon of acid and the E-bay of ecstasy– and it ships to New Zealand.

Like many in the generation that has been described as “digital natives”, Bruce doesn’t see why his freedom should be restricted by law-makers who don’t understand him.

During his formative years, the MP3 made criminals of an entire generation. Burnt CDs were swapped in high schools, and copyright was a law that everybody broke.

He thinks about this as he sits in his Wellington home, preparing to make a dangerous order.

He is nervous, but well prepared. It’s a strange feeling, because like everything on the internet, the danger is abstract.

In fact, to the casual observer, there would be nothing out of the ordinary about his actions.

Bruce sits in front of his computer, a half-drained can of cola to his left, a messy array of cables snaking over his cluttered desk, next to which stands a bookshelf stuffed with cyber-punk fiction.

In the top left corner of his browser window sits a non-descript login box, blank apart from two fields and an anti-spam protector. The end of his address bar reads “.onion”.

Bruce is browsing the internet through a service called ToR, which bounces his web-traffic through servers in multiple countries in order to make him anonymous to anyone who might be tracking his surfing.

ToR stands for “The Onion Router” and was originally a product of US Navy research.

It has since been championed by cyber-liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a way to maintain the anonymity of the internet, both at home and in countries where freedom of speech is threatened by authoritarian governments.

It was used by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to move around leaked US files so that mainstream media like The Guardian and the New York Times could get access to them.

Beyond the Google search string or the Wikipedia entry, Bruce has discovered a darker side to the internet.

He is about to log on to the kind of site usually only seen in his cyper-punk fiction. Down the internet equivalent of series of back-alleys, lies Silk Road.

Silk Road claims to be a totally anonymous online market place where users sell illicit substances for digital cash – and it is catching on here in New Zealand.

Once Bruce has logged in, he is greeted with a simple site with sidebar showing categories of listings (right).

Psychedelics liquid LSD, blotter paper tabs, mescaline, mushroom caps.

Is black tar heroin your bag? How about a fistful of crystal MDMA (the pure form of ecstasy)? Opiates, heroin, oxytocin, it’s all here, all boldly on display with neat little product descriptions and helpful hints.

More than 850 listings for drugs are currently featured on the site, but there are also categories for weapons, pornography and lab equipment.

Certain items are restricted by the seller’s agreement, and the site claims it restricts the sale of items designed to hurt or defraud others.

According to the sellers guide: “Silk Road exists to circumvent that force and provide a safe-haven where civilized people can come together in peace for mutual benefit.

“To allow listings of items designed to defraud or harm innocent people would be to stoop to the level of the very people we are standing up to.”

Silk Road sellers have a feedback record, just like you would see on TradeMe, which seems to be mostly positive for the small community of sellers.

Bruce discovered Silk Road through internet research about Bitcoin, a new digital crypto-currency which makes the drug-market’s supposed anonymity possible.

Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer virtual currency, which is not hooked to any bank or institution.

Its value is based on nothing but the trustworthiness of the system itself, so perhaps it is not surprising that its value fluctuates wildly.

The biggest trader is MtGox, who were hacked in June, leading to millions of dollars worth of bitcoins disappearing.

Despite its draw-backs and unsecure future, where Bitcoin does succeed is its ability to allow seamless international transactions, and it has been hailed by libertarian supporters as a way to opt out of the traditional banking structure.

The first Bitcoins were generated in 2009 after a cryptography paper released by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto (now believed to be a pseudonym) outlined the basic principles.

The currency itself works via a piece of open source software, which creates a digital wallet to store Bitcoins.

BitCoin

  • Developed in 2009.
  • Works as an open source platform – users download the client program and get a virtual address in which to store bitcoins.
  • The coins are contained in the virtual wallet once purchased.
  • Transactions are verified and new blocks of data are “mined” by computers worldwide, users can earn bitcoins by donating their computing time to the project.
  • Largest exchange is MtGox –  which was hacked on June  19, leading to $8.7 million worth of bitcoins disappearing.
  • The value of bitcoin has fluctuated a great deal, from up to $US30 per coin down to a single cent.

Back in New Zealand, Bruce has a “prezzy card” pre-loaded with cash, which he uses to buy enough Bitcoins for his purchase.

“Silk Road is quickly becoming infamous in the bitcoin community,” he says.

The site’s mysterious creators appear to see themselves as libertarian freedom fighters.

“Regardless of your motivations, you are a revolutionary,” the buyers guide preaches. “Your actions are bringing satisfaction to those that have been oppressed for far too long. Take pride in what you do and stand tall.”

Since the advent of Silk Road, Bitcoin software co-developer Jeff Garzik has said that since the log is public, law enforcement could potentially track down buyers using sophisticated computer analysis.

To access the site, users must use ToR, which bounces their connection off several servers worldwide, making identity untraceable.

ToR

    • Stands for The Onion Router, and .onion addresses can only be accessed through the service.
    • Released in 2002.
    • Now includes an easy to setup browser package.
    • Initially developed by US Naval research, and subsequently supported by civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
    • The EFF justified their support on the basis that it could help access censored material as well as help journalists and political dissidents keep their activities anonymous.

The most dangerous part of the Silk Road process – as acknowledged in the site’s frequently asked questions – is providing a physical address to which the seller can send.

The sellers vary where they drop off the packages.

A fortnight after placing his order, Bruce goes to his rented post office box and takes out a non-descript business letter.

Here is the real danger, the point at which the abstraction of the digital realm must meet reality.

Attached to the back page of the report are four small cardboard tabs soaked in LSD.

The letter has come all the way from the Netherlands, and has cost Bruce around $NZ70.

He says there was very little scrutiny applying for the post office box, and no identity checking for the prepaid credit card.

Silk Road is an extreme example of the kind of culture that has arisen on the internet.

In a moving post in 1996, former Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Barlow wrote a declaration of internet independence, words which for better or worse have come to define the libertarian ideals on which Silk Road is based.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” Barlow declared.

“On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Many of the ideals of the now 15-year-old declaration are still being decided.

For example, New Zealand’s Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act has been a contentious issue among internet activists.

For its supporters, the bill is an attempt to bring some order to the digital frontier. The Wild West ethos among the digital generation will have far-ranging consequences.

But for many, the law is toothless. For those with any technical savvy, it is a simple matter to rent an offshore server in order to continue to violate the copyright laws.

Sites which specifically offer services to circumvent the fledgling law have already cropped up.

Even this measure is unnecessary for the determined file-sharer, who can simply switch to bit-lockers such as Media-Fire to get their content, rather than risk torrents monitored by rights-holders.

Back in Wellington, Bruce intends to take the LSD himself and does not think it is anyone else’s business.

“I’ve done my research, and I believe that it is my own personal choice what I put into my body. It’s a matter of freedom”

Authorities will not agree, but time will tell whether they will have sufficient power to stop this new peer-to-peer drug trade.

* Bruce is a pseudonym.

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is A Journalism Student at Whitireia in Wellington, New Zealand. His specialty areas are digital culture, politics and cyber-crime.
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