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Drugs in browsers and messengers. How the sale of prohibited substances is organized on the Internet

Photo: Hasty Words/Pixabay

Photo: Hasty Words/Pixabay

Information about the founders of the drug dealers forum Legalizer has been disclosed—this is just a part of the huge industry selling illegal substances through digital communication channels.

How Legalizer's founders were de-anonymized

In mid-August of this year, an unknown hacker de-anonymized the founders of the forum Legalizer. This website is the largest drug trading platform among the countries of the former USSR. The hacker published in the public domain the passport data of the platform owners, the contacts of the users and their correspondence.

The forum Legalizer is available at several addresses at once. The main resource is offered on the site, but a simple Google search reveals several more "mirrors" of the website, legalizer.cc, legalizer.biz, and legalizer.vip are among them. The content of these sites is completely identical, and such copying is used, most likely, for situations when the resource will be blocked in one of the countries whose residents are active on this forum.

The hacker, who was able to identify the data of the project’s founders, posted them on the site (if this link is incapacitated, you can use the link to the Internet archive).

Among the founders of the project Legalizer, the hacker named Latvian citizen Artem Shvedov, Roman Kukharenko, registered in the Moscow region, and Ukrainian Oleksandr Prokhozhenko. Some of the information about the resource founders is freely available, the rest is offered to be bought for one bitcoin.

The authors of the article in the Russian Kommersant cite the opinion of experts who do not exclude the fact that the listed persons’ names in fact are not relevant to the real founders and leaders of the project Legalizer, but they are sure that this information may lead to the arrests of people connected with the site.

The Ukrainian online magazine AIN published a column of OSINT specialists from the company Molfar (OSINT—Open source intelligence, intelligence based on open data). This article tells the readers in more detail about the Ukrainian administrator of the forum Legalizer and his legal business—tattoo studios in Kharkiv and Kyiv.

The Darknet Market and the Silk Road, or how drugs began to be sold online

The idea of selling prohibited substances online is not new. Moreover, as soon as an isolated separate "dark network"—the so-called DarkNet—had not come into existence, ideas began to emerge to use it for selling prohibited substances. Not necessarily drugs are among them. Darknet markets sell fake documents, cyber weapons, personal information, illegal drugs, and more.

By 2010, these processes were fragmented and chaotic. However, with the advent of the Silk Road network on the darknet and the popularization of alternative payment instruments such as bitcoin, the trade of prohibited goods on the dark web has taken on new dimensions. Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, known for his liberal views, wanted to create a platform for selling precisely prohibited substances. Silk Road's rules banned selling bank card details, child porn, murder orders, and other illegal goods.

The authors of the movie Silk Road, filmed in 2021, cite Ross Ulbricht, who allegedly wanted that drugs could be ordered online as easily as any other commodity, and Silk Road was to become the "Amazon for drugs."

According to the Digital Citizens Alliance, in 2011-2013, Silk Road accounted for the overwhelming proportion of online drug traffic. In 2013, after Ulbricht's arrest, there was an attempt to create Silk Road 2.0, but this site worked for about a year.

The official data on Silk Road activity statistics are somewhat different, but they all demonstrate the extremely high activity of this platform. For example, Nicolas Christin from Carnegie Mellon University calculated that in 2012-2014 the annual transactions of Silk Road exceeded $15 million.However, the scientist later wrote that he would not be surprised by the real figures of $30—$45 million.

The website's daily audience was 60,000 users. According to other data, more than 1.2 million transactions were carried out on Silk Road in 2011-2013, which provided a total income of 9.5 million bitcoins, and the platform's commission exceeded 615,000 bitcoins. More than 146,000 buyers and almost 4,000 sellers took part in these agreements.

After the closure of Silk Road and Silk Road 2.0, several other online drug sales platforms were operating, according to digital security organization Digital Shadows. However, after the largest of them, AlphaBay and Hansa, ceased to exist in 2018, the market activity of sellers shifted to Telegram and decentralized marketplaces such as OpenBazaar. Moreover, Telegram in different countries of the world has become the main platform for prohibited goods.

Hydra, Telegram, and forums

The largest online platform for narcotics trade on the Runet is the platform Hydra, accessible only through the browser Tor. More than 2.5 million accounts, 400,000 of which have clinched at least one deal—such data of users’ activity is given by the Russian media Project that published the most detailed investigation of the activities of this site. The authors of the article emphasize that in the West, online marketplaces for the sale of illegal substances have existed for less than a year, and after that they special services close them. But Hydra has been working for several years without much difficulty due to window-dressing of the combat drug trafficking.

Currently, data from the investigation of Hydra's activities have described its activity only in Russia. However, in 2021, news appeared (with reference to a message on the website of the project itself) that the Russian platform Hydra plans to expand its presence in other countries and is preparing expansion to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. For this purpose, the topic "Promotional action for CIS sellers" was created on the site's forum with special offers that should interest the target audience, that is, sellers and buyers. However, it cannot be ruled out that Hydra is already secretly working in Ukraine.

The activity of online drug trade in Ukraine can be evidenced by the fact that Ukraine, together with Russia and the United States, is in top three countries with the largest volume of cryptocurrency transactions passing through the darknet markets, ahead of, for example, China. Users of the dark network, on condition of anonymity, say that it is much safer to work in Ukraine due to the fact that the police here pay less attention to the participants in the process—laboratories, kladmen, and wholesale suppliers, not to mention the end customers. Although news about the active fight against online drug sales appears regularly in the media.

In addition to the already well-known Legalizer, the secure Telegram messenger is a real klondike for online drug dealers. Residents of the major cities, who can see the names of Telegram channels and bots selling drugs on the walls of their houses, know about this. Despite various methods of searching and exposing such channels in Telegram, in particular the special Telegram bot StopNarcotic, that law enforcement officers like to brag about, the Telegram trade in illegal substances is flourishing. From time to time, news about the successes of law enforcement agencies, such as the closure of the network Telegrass and the detention of the project founders, appear. But new channels, chats, and even Telegram bots for the automatic sale of drugs appear on the Telegram platform very quickly. The technical capabilities of the bots allow one to place an order in a completely automatic mode—get acquainted with the assortment, select a product, dose, and the area where one can pick up a stash. The operator can intervene in this chain at the moment of payment.

Too free cash register

When looking for data on the forum Legalizer, we not only found several mirrors of the site indicating that its founders took care of the possible blocking of the resource in advance. The Legalizer content is available to everyone, even without special registration, and Google will helpfully help with this.

Studying the content of the Legalizer led us to various Telegram channels that traded illegal substances. The search and analysis of the content of these projects took place without additional tools like the anonymous browser Tor or other tools for accessing DarkNet.

Everyone knows the activity of the Ukrainian authorities regarding the blocking of online resources that has been going on for four years. It sometimes takes on strange forms, moreover, it contains a priori impracticable requirements for blocking individual Facebook pages and YouTube channels that cannot be implemented except to block Facebook and YouTube completely in Ukraine.

At the same time, online platforms for selling prohibited substances are working successfully and do not require any steps from potential buyers to gain access to these resources. In other words, in Ukraine one doesn’t even need to use DarkNet to buy prohibited substances. A browser and registration in Telegram are enough.

This is our reality that exists simultaneously with the media noise around the active fight against prohibited substances.

The existence of any secure digital tool at some point turns it into the means for illegal or prohibited activities in a particular country. One way not to become exclusively a tool for terrorists, drug dealers, and arms dealers is the willingness of the platform company to create a powerful content moderation system, but Facebook's experience shows that its work is not always effective and successful.

As for Telegram, the company's management announces the blocking of channels that sell drugs and personal data from time to time, but these actions are literally drops in the ocean of prohibited agreements carried out in closed Telegram chats.

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