Anonymous Messenger Apps and Drug Distribution in Ukraine

With increased anonymity, secure messaging apps have allowed illicit drug distribution networks to flourish in Ukraine

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Aug 13 · 6 min read
(Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via www.flaticon.com)

Drug dealers in Ukraine have cultivated an open drug distribution network largely unfettered by law enforcement scrutiny via a widely used tool: the secure messenger app Telegram.

The rise of secure messaging apps, such as Telegram and WhatsApp, has afforded increased protection to political dissidents, journalists, and other actors transmitting sensitive information or otherwise wary of government surveillance. At the same time, however, these apps have afforded criminal enterprise a greater degree of protection as well.

In Ukraine, drug dealers have begun to use the messenger app Telegram to establish closed drug advertising and distribution channels. With very little, if any, scrutiny from law enforcement or government oversight, these closed channels have spawned a flourishing ecosystem of direct advertisements for illegal drugs.

From the Street to the Web

In 2015, graffiti started to appear throughout the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv directing users to a website, accompanied by the text “легал соли” (“legal salts”) a likely reference to synthetic cathinones, commonly referred to as “bath salts.”

A series of the same graffiti advertisement for an online drug marketplace posted in 2015 on a wall in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via Google Maps)

The website address graffitied on the wall led to an online drug marketplace that allowed consumers to purchase drugs from an assortment of vendors across six cities in Ukraine.

The user interface of the online shop from the graffiti above as it appeared on August 1, 2015. (Source: 777rc.biz/archive)

The interface allowed the user to pick a city as well as a desired quantity of bath salts. The top bar menu, translated from Russian, made a number of sub-pages available: “Goods;” “Order Confirmation;” “Reviews;” “HOW to BUY?;” and “Vacancies.”

Graffiti ads allow the illicit drug marketplace to flourish while “hiding in plain sight.” Because these ads often use drug street names as well as slang, passersby who were not steeped in drug culture would likely miss their meaning. Furthermore, the simplicity and low cost of graffiti ads allows dealers to replicate and disseminate them across the city easily.

The Marketplace Moves to Telegram

Over the past several years, however, vendors have largely migrated to secure messenger apps, such as Telegram, possibly because these apps have wider distribution as well as increased security for both consumers and sellers.

In October 2017, the operators of the 777rc site posted a note on the homepage redirecting buyers to their new Telegram channel.

The user interface of the same online shop as it appeared on October 4, 2017. Translated from Russian, the caption reads: “The website is closed! All sales are through Telegram bot.” (Source: 777rc.biz/archive)

As with the website, the graffiti also shifted to promote Telegram, instead of the website.

The advertisement of a Telegram account for an illicit drug marketplace on the facade of a building in Kyiv in 2019. (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via Google Maps)

On Telegram, the buyer submits an inquiry to the dealer via chat. Then, the seller and buyer negotiate the specific product, the amount requested, and the form of payment. Vendors use various payment methods, including direct money transfers to online wallets, cryptocurrency, or prepaid phone cards. Telegram offers a higher degree of anonymity in coordinating these payments compared to more traditional communications channels, such as Skype and email. After payment, the buyer receives the coordinates for where the drugs are hidden. The hidden drug is referred to as a “treasure,” and the transaction a “treasure hunt.”

The technology allows users to avoid detection because they are not directly involved in the transaction. The “footmen” responsible for hiding the drugs are referred to as “treasure men” (закладчики). This job is particularly risky, as the treasure man must take care to avoid drawing attention in a public space as they hide the drugs. Some channels directly post vacancies for these jobs, much like 777rc.biz mentioned.

Telegram channels describing their inventory and posting job vacancies. (Source: Telegram)

Opposition Online and Offline

The overt advertising of illicit drugs in public has attracted some attention from residents, who have started to take action and notify police of instances of graffiti. The police, however, often refuse to open a case absent a clear criminal offense. In Ukraine, the maximum fine for defacement of public property is just $50, so that charge alone is often not worth pursuing. Furthermore, the graffiti rarely qualifies as drug solicitation — a more serious crime — because the ads typically employ code words with hidden meanings.

After an unsuccessful attempt at informing the police, a vigilante journalist paints over the graffiti ad for a Telegram illicit drug marketplace. (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via NewsOne and giphy.com)

To combat illegal drug distribution, activists are organizing both online and offline. Online, Telegram channels such as No Drugs Ukraine and Drug Hunters Lviv collect tips and aggregate chat logs and other evidence of online drug marketplaces to send complaints to Telegram and block the sources of distribution. These initiatives have achieved some success in convincing Telegram to block certain drug distribution channels on the platform.

The No Drugs Ukraine Telegram-channel lists various drug distribution channels, asking subscribers to report them to Telegram. (Source: No Drugs Ukraine)

Offline, activists collect tips on the location of graffiti ads and spray paint over them. Nowadays, many nongovernmental organizations and civil society support such actions to fight the drugs’ dissemination. Some of the earliest activists on this front, however, belonged to nationalist youth organizations that promote a drug-free lifestyle, sometimes through militant means. In 2017, a website devoted to the hashtag “#Наркокаратель” (“#DrugPunisher”) aimed to mobilize a movement to clear the streets of drug dealers, at all costs. The police condemned the vigilante movement.

The #DrugPunisher website featured a link (purple box) to a Telegram channel, top right. The original website shut down, though a new website exists for “National Squads” with similar URL (bottom). (Source: Ndrug.org/archive, top left; NDrug/archive, top right; National Squads/archive, bottom)

The original webpage is now offline, but a slightly different address with the suffix “ua” is still in use by “National Squads,” which claims its mission is to provide order to the streets. The NDrug Telegram channel remains active.

Those organizations have also pressed city authorities, with limited success, to paint over the graffiti ads. On Telegram, the operators of these distribution channels can easily change their phone number if their identity is exposed, without providing additional identification. In Ukraine, unlike in Russia and Belarus, anyone can buy a prepaid SIM card without providing an ID. As a result, new online marketplaces can be online and running in a matter of days. The ease with which the operators of these channels can obscure their identity, coupled with their low cost and low effort advertising model of choice — graffiti ads — allow these channels to flourish, with some going as far as to post job vacancies.

Conclusion

Telegram’s end-to-end encryption technology has attracted political dissidents, journalists, and activists who place a high value on data privacy and security to the platform. The same increased security, however, has also attracted criminal enterprise. In Ukraine, drug distributors have largely moved their online marketplaces to Telegram, cultivating drug distribution networks that offer both buyer and seller a greater degree of anonymity.

Recent busts by Ukrainian special forces, raids against distributors, and “paint wars” with rival dealers have not led to a dramatic decrease in advertisements or in drug dissemination channels. Anti-drug activist groups have taken matters into their own hands but have achieved only limited success in thwarting these networks, which continue to proliferate.


Roman Osadchuk is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Ukraine.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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