Beyond the Dark Web: Arms Trafficking in the Digital Age
By: Matt Schroeder
In October 2013, the US Justice Department announced the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the founder and operator of ‘Silk Road,’ a massive online marketplace for drugs and other illicit goods. Authorities called it ‘the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet’ and estimated that it had facilitated the transfer of more than a billion dollars in drugs and other contraband over a two-year period (US FBI, 2013). Ulbricht set up his black market bazaar on the dark web — a collection of websites that are accessible only through special software such as TOR. Practically overnight, ‘dark web’ was transformed into a household term, and its implications for criminality, including arms trafficking, became the topic du jour for policymakers, pundits, and journalists. This fascination with the dark web obscures the broader role that the Internet plays in the illicit proliferation of weapons. Online activities related to arms trafficking occur throughout the Internet, including on mainstream websites. This activity ranges from outreach to potential clients on social media to the procurement of weapons, ammunition, and accessories from online vendors.
The embrace of the Internet by arms traffickers and their clients has significant implications for law enforcement and policymakers, but it is not a game changer, at least not yet. Arms trafficking remains tethered to the real (physical) world in important ways. In fact, very few illicit transfers are conducted entirely online. Weapons are physical objects that are manufactured, stored and transported offline. Technological advancements such as 3D printing could eventually sever some of the links between the real and virtual worlds but, for now, most ‘online’ arms trafficking involves extensive offline activities and interactions.
Online activities associated with arms trafficking can be divided into three main categories: advertising, procurement, and technology transfers. A brief discussion of each category is included below.
Perhaps the most important role played by the Internet is efficiently connecting potential buyers and sellers of illicit weapons. Social media sites and online marketplaces allow arms traffickers to identify and engage with potential clients located across town, in other countries, or, in some cases, on different continents. Sites on the dark web are used for this purpose but so are legitimate, mainstream websites. As documented by Small Arms Survey, traffickers based in the United States have illegally shipped hundreds of weapons, accessories, and components to foreign clients whom they met on social media, legitimate online marketplaces, and gun forums (Schroeder, 2016, p. 4). Such activity is not limited to the United States. Traffickers in Middle East and Africa have set up regional weapons-centered marketplaces on social media sites. Weapons advertised on these marketplaces range from blank-firing handguns to anti-tank missiles (Jenzen-Jones & McCollum, 2017, p. 41 & 46). Some companies have taken steps to prevent arms trafficking on their sites, but completely eradicating it is extremely difficult.
Some traffickers purchase most or all of their merchandise from online vendors. The ease of shopping online and the ready availability of weapons, components, and accessories undoubtedly explain why traffickers procure these items over the Internet, especially in places where sales of firearms and related items are strictly controlled. Another benefit is reduced visibility. While few online transactions are truly anonymous, purchasing weapons over the Internet allows traffickers to minimize their procurement footprint. Instead of buying large quantities of weapons from a single store — a red flag for law enforcement and law-abiding vendors — many traffickers purchase small quantities of the same items from several different sellers, which is much less conspicuous. Placing numerous small orders online is much easier than driving to multiple brick-and-mortar stores.
Online purchases also involve fewer interactions with vendor employees, who are often critical sources of information for law enforcement. The importance of this information is illustrated by the multi-year investigation into an Arizona-based trafficker of hand grenade components to Mexico. Employees of military surplus stores frequented by the trafficker provided authorities with a wide array of valuable information, including his purchase orders and driver’s license number. One quick-witted clerk working at a shop in Phoenix wrote down a description of the trafficker’s vehicle and his license plate number, which was promptly provided to investigators. Two of the clerk’s colleagues also positively identified the trafficker from a photo shown to them by authorities (US District Court for the District of Arizona, 2011, pp. 17–18). Based on this and other evidence, the trafficker was arrested in Mexico and extradited to the US (US DOJ, 2015).
Many traffickers also use online payment services and cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin and its less well-known counterparts are often favored by dark web vendors, some of whom only accept payment in cryptocurrencies. Other illicit financial activity, such as the sharing and use of stolen credit card numbers to purchase trafficked firearms, is also conducted online.
The third category of online activity related to arms trafficking is the illicit sharing of technical data on the creation, assembly and use of weapons. This data takes many forms and covers topics ranging from the construction of improvised batteries for shoulder-fired missiles to the conversion of non-lethal and deactivated guns into lethal-purpose firearms. Of particular concern is the illicit proliferation of files for making weapons with 3D printers and other production technologies, such as computer numerically controlled (CNC) milling machines. Existing evidence suggests that only a small proportion of illicit weapons are currently made with these technologies, but this may change as 3D printers, and particularly metal printers, improve in quality and decrease in price. Their widespread acquisition and use by traffickers and other illicit end-users could eventually undermine the export control regimes that have been the backbone of national and international anti-trafficking efforts for decades.
Online arms trafficking is a serious problem with real-world consequences. Digital marketplaces and online storefronts are significant force multipliers for tech-savvy arms traffickers, who can build global client bases and diversified supply networks with minimal capital and from nearly anywhere in the world. The Internet is not yet the game-changer that many feared, however. Law enforcement agencies in the US and elsewhere have adapted to the digital age as evidenced by the numerous online arms traffickers arrested by US authorities in recent years, including traffickers operating on the dark web.
The continued links between the virual and physical worlds provide additional opportunities for authorities to detect online trafficking networks and interdict arms shipments arranged by these networks. That said, the improving quality and increasing availability of 3D-printers and other production technologies could eventually tip the scales in favor of online traffickers, with potentially dire consequences for export control regimes. Preventing this outcome will be challenging; the inherently dual-use nature of 3D printers and their numerous beneficial applications limit the types of controls that governments can impose on manufacturers, retailers and exporters.
Overcoming these and other challenges associated with arms trafficking in the digital age will require creative thinking and close collaboration between policy-makers, law enforcement agencies, and industry at the national and international levels. This is a tall order given the current geopolitical climate but, given what’s at stake, it would behoove the international community to find common ground on this critical issue.
Note: This text also appears in the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Line of Sight’ at the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts (Musée de design et d’arts appliqués contemporains, MUDAC) in Lausanne, Switzerland — for which the Small Arms Survey has provided background information. The exhibition will run from 14 March–26 August 2018.
 See Chivers (2016); Jenzen-Jones & McCollum (2017); and Rawnsley, Woods, & Triebert (2017).
 For example, Bitcoin was the only method of payment accepted on Silkroad, according to US authorities. See US DHS (2013).
 See, for example, Persi Paoli, et al. (2017, p. 34).
 In 2017, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published an analysis of the potential impact of additive manufacturing (3D printing) on the proliferation and control of missiles. Many of the issues raised in the report are also applicable to small arms and light weapons. See Brockmann and Bauer (2017).
Brockmann, Kolja and Sibylle Bauer. 2017. ‘3D Printing and Missile Technology Controls.’ SIPRI Background Paper. November.
Chivers, C.J. 2016. ‘Facebook Groups Act as Weapons Bazaars for Militias.’ The New York Times. 6 April.
Jenzen-Jones, N.R. and Ian McCollum. 2017. Web Trafficking: Analzying the Online Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons in Libya. Security Assessment in North Africa Working Paper 26. April.
Persi Paoli, Giacomo. 2017. Behind the Curtain: The Illicit Trade of Firearms, Explosives and Ammunition on the Dark Web. RAND Corporation.
Rawnsley, Adam, Eric Woods, and Christiaan Triebert. 2017. ‘The Messaging App Fueling Syria’s Insurgency.’ Foreign Policy. 6 November.
Schroeder, Matt. 2016. ‘Dribs and Drabs: The Mechanics of Small Arms Trafficking from the United States.’ Small Arms Survey Issue Brief 17. March.
US DHS (Department of Homeland Security). 2013. ‘ICE Statement for the Record for a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Hearing Titled “Beyond Silk Road: Potential Risks, Threats, and Promises of Virtual Currencies.”’ 18 November.
US District Court for the District of Arizona. 2011. ‘United States of America v. Jean Baptiste Kingery.’ Criminal Complaint. 19 October.
US DOJ (Department of Justice). 2014. ‘Summary of Findings: A Review of ATF’s Investigation of Jean Baptiste Kingery.’
____. 2015. ‘Mexico Extradites 13 Defendants to Face Charges in the United States.’ 30 September.
US FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). 2013. ‘Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Seizure of Additional $28 Million Worth of Bitcoins Belonging to Ross William Ulbricht, Alleged Owner and Operator of “Silk Road” Website.’ 25 October.