Social media and encrypted messaging apps in illicit narcotics trade


Dr G Shreekumar Menon/shreemenon48@gmail.com

The rapidly evolving IT and telecom technologies have become an inextricable part of our life. Their versatile functionality and a multi-million audience of users as well as the possibility to preserve anonymity are appealing conditions not only for ordinary people but also for criminals. The development of modern information technology has had a substantial effect on the illicit drug trade situation. Contactless method of drug sales is now most common. It involves using uncontrolled messengers with data encryption functionality, such as Telegram, Signal, and Wickr, e-money systems as well as crypto assets. Multi-level systems relying on electronic services and money transfer systems that do not require opening an account, as well as bank cards, and crypto assets are used to provide financial resources for the drug distribution network, including to transfer funds abroad.

There is a mushrooming of online pharmacies and crypto markets around the world. To access these new innovative markets and reach out to anonymous clients, smart phone enabled social media and messaging applications, are being relied upon by drug dealers and peddlers. Apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and What’s App, and Telegram are getting popular to communicate and trade in drugs. Majority of the younger generation are very comfortable using social media. The present Covid pandemic and switching over to Online mode of education has made even school going children computer savvy. Many of them have taken like a duck to water and are at ease operating many online platforms. Apps are a quick, reliable and safe medium for many confidential dealings. Apps are utilized in innovative ways as social networking spaces to advertise availability of illicit drugs, as also preview the type of drugs available. Encrypted messaging services enable secret communications between known sellers and buyers. This affords reasonable protection from enforcement agencies and unwanted intrusion from the general public. The risk of encountering enforcement agencies in public spaces gets totally eliminated, thereby giving total protection for both, buyer and seller. Only the virtual transaction is enabled in this manner, still, the physical delivery of the illicit consignment needs to be done by relying on postal service or courier service. This marketing technique is commonly known as App-mediated drug trade.

Emojis (digital images or icons) are often employed to convey the exact requirement, for example – a needle can mean requirement for heroin, snowflakes refer to Cocaine, plants could mean Marijuana, and so on. Once a drug buyer latches on to a seller, he can see digital images and information about the quality and price of the drugs. Expression of interest in a particular drug can be conveyed through in-built messaging services. Alternatively, the buyer will be directed to negotiate further dealings through more secure networks like Wickr, Kik, Telegram, and Snapchat. Automated bots are used to communicate with customers – both for convenience and to defer liability. The end-to-end encryption and limited identity checks make apps like Telegram attractive to drug gangs.

A major change in the way many drug dealers deliver the product to the customer is through the use of “dead drops”. This bypasses the dangers of meeting face-to-face, while also avoiding the risk of drugs being tracked or intercepted through the postal system. Goods are instead hidden in publicly accessible places, such as parks, before the location is sent to the customer once the purchase has been made. The drop gangs as they have been dubbed, were first discovered operating in Ukraine but have since been observed in Russia, the Balkans and most of central and eastern Europe. In India also this technique is being adopted, though it is yet to catch on in a big way.

Another method of delivery that is slowly becoming popular is by using drones. Drone delivery of drugs has started on the Indo-Pak border, especially on the Punjab and Kashmir borders. Arms and drugs on drones have been detected on the borders. Several drones have been intercepted. Drone technology has enabled the sender and the recipient to maintain a level of anonymity.

Apps have changed the drug supply landscape by providing an efficient route to illicit drug markets that is easy to access, and giving drug users with a means of connecting directly with commercial drug suppliers and substances that may otherwise be inaccessible.

Telegram app is a gateway to a parallel world in which drug dealers, sex workers, hawala operators and other criminal gangs become visible. They go about their business relatively undisturbed, discoverable by anyone who uses the app. Many groups are private and there is a need to be invited first. This ensures that only known members can bring in new entrants. It is impossible to verify whether the transactions discussed on Telegram are really taking place. It's possible that a lot of people are just indulging their fantasies out or just dabbling in it for mere fun. The app uses end-to-end encryption on all messages and files, including pictures and videos. This ensures that third parties are unable to access the data as it transfers from one device to another.

Wickr, another popular app allows users to set messages to “auto-destruct”. Users are able to set a time for each conversation between one second and six days. For the particularly security-conscious, users are able to verify the identity of their contacts by exchanging “keys”. Each user sends a short video in order for the other person to confirm that they are speaking to the right person. According to Wickr, the level of security that their app offers means that it would take hundreds of years to gain access to even one message. By then, the message would have expired and got deleted. Hence, not only drug dealers and consumers but even terror gangs find it useful for their operations. As messages are purged, no traces are left behind, making it a safe space for criminals and anti-nationals to operate.

The use of cryptocurrencies in the above kind of dealings has made drug transactions easy and safe. Modern technology is used to pay for drugs and launder the sale proceeds. By using the Internet, new payment instruments, advanced encryption tools and tools providing anonymity of data transmission, drug deals can now be made by criminals located in different parts of the world without knowing each other. This happens due to the anonymity of the digital environment, the transboundary capabilities of the global Internet network, and the speed of data transmission are transforming the illegal drug markets. Crypto currencies provide anonymity, usability, security, acceptance, reliability, and volume to its users.

The fact that criminals are using the latest financial instruments proves that they strive to not only achieve a higher level of conspiracy in their criminal activities but also want to preserve their income safely. To this end, criminal schemes are actively migrating into the domain of digital technologies. Many drug syndicates have adopted the new innovative technologies, including the Darknet, cryptocurrencies, e-wallets and anonymizers. In recent years, many international drug traffickers have begun exploring the artificial intelligence developments and technologies with a view to adapting them to their criminal needs. It is obviously a multifaceted transnational problem that requires development of a collective response by the entire international community.

Fighting crime that involves laundering of illicit drug proceeds is one of the toughest and most important aspect of law enforcement activities. As terrorism is often fuelled and financed by drug trafficking proceeds, the key to successful interdiction is by disrupting the financial deals and seizing the illegal sale proceeds.

Drug traffickers have almost completely and universally moved their criminal activities into the cyberspace and use electronic payment instruments to receive and make payments. In such conditions, combating the threats stemming from transboundary drug trafficking will be an important element of the future collective security architecture.

It is estimated that every year, drug dealers across the globe legalize up to 1.5 trillion dollars, which is nearly 5% of the global GDP. It is a well-known fact that drug trade and everything connected with it generates up to 2000 percent of profit for criminals and, therefore, this criminal business is highly attractive for all transnational criminal groups. Cryptocurrencies are used at different stages to fund criminal acts like payment of remuneration to drug couriers, “dead drop” planters and personnel of drug laboratories.

Fighting crime that involves laundering of illicit drug proceeds is one of the toughest and most important aspect of law enforcement activities. As terrorism is often fuelled and financed by drug trafficking proceeds, the key to successful interdiction is by disrupting the financial deals and seizing the illegal sale proceeds.

As the world becomes more and more tech savvy, enforcement agencies will also be compelled to recruit cyber forensic experts and governments will need to invest in technology in a big way.

(Dr. G. Shreekumar Menon IRS (RTD) Ph.D. (Narcotics) is Former Director General, National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, & Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India, Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non- Proliferation Studies, USA. Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA)

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