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The DOJ Wants To Stop Drug Sales On The Dark Web, But That’s A Tough Task

As Trump tweets, government acts. Welcome to Meanwhile, our recurring look at what federal agencies are up to and how their work affects people’s lives.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is ramping up the online war on drugs.

The Department of Justice last month announced the creation of the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) team. There’s not much detail on the team or what strategies it might take to deal with the darknet or dark web, a network of internet sites that can be accessed anonymously. But according to Nora Scheland, an FBI spokesperson, the team will focus on “disrupting the sale of drugs via the darknet and dismantling criminal enterprises that facilitate this trafficking.”

The darknet consists of internet services that can be accessed with anonymity using special networks such as The Onion Router, or Tor, network. As the Justice Department said when it announced the takedown of the darknet market AlphaBay last July, the websites on the dark web are also referred to as “dark” because of “what’s sold on many of them: illegal weapons, stolen identities, child pornography and large amounts of deadly drugs.”

But some experts warn that, depending on the approach the Justice Department takes, the disrupted sites could simply resurface elsewhere or thrive internationally — and its tactics could raise privacy concerns.

Much as with crackdowns on traditional drug markets, shutting online marketplaces and arresting their operators have resulted in other marketplaces replacing them. In October 2013, after the FBI and other law enforcement agencies took down the darknet site Silk Road, another service, Silk Road 2.0, was up by November. The cycle has continued, as demonstrated by the takedown of AlphaBay, considered by the FBI to be the largest online drug marketplace in the world, with 40,000 vendors selling illegal products to 200,000 users. Several vendors and listings for darknet marketplaces can still be found on sites like Reddit, and, according to a researcher who studies the darknet, at least 32 markets are currently operating.

Experts predicted that the FBI’s new program would continue investigation strategies to police darknet marketplaces and make purchases in order to catch site administrators in similar ways to what it’s done in past operations. Eric Jardine, a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation who researches cybersecurity, said that taking a more targeted approach to policing the darknet for illegal drug markets could allow law enforcement to become familiar with the technology employed.

But Jardine also said the initiative may prove ineffective if federal law enforcement agencies don’t consider the international nature of the darknet and cryptomarkets.

“It’s a U.S. social problem that they’re trying to combat with what seems like, on the face of it, a U.S.-centric response,” Jardine said. “But the problem is actually global in terms of its potential spread and facilitation. They may need to think bigger if they really want to make this work.”

He also warned that if the department tries its typical network investigative techniques — such as attempts to aggressively police the actual technology that allows the darknet to exist and to disrupt anonymous networks like Tor — it may create privacy problems by compromising the information of users who aren’t doing anything illegal.

Kathryn Casteel is a former FiveThirtyEight staffer who wrote about economics and policy issues.