Behind codes of encryption, the so-called "Deep Web" hosts a vast network of people trading in illegal sales of all sorts, most notably any drug imaginable.
Like the Neapolitan neighborhood of Scampia where the mob openly runs the drugs trade, the Internet is rife with narcotics for sale. But there is one particular website that has far more to offer than what you could find in Scampia. It is a forum that is open 24/7, where thousands of drug dealers sell every kind of drug imaginable without any real risk of being caught and punished.
This junkie's playground is called "Silk Road." Mind you, it's not easy to find. This eBay of dope appears not to exist - if you type the address into your browser it doesn't turn up any results. But the site most definitely does exist. It's hiding in a dark corner of the web – the hidden Internet – the Deep Web.
To enter this parallel virtual world you need to use Tor (short for The Onion Router), a free program that encrypts the user’s information to make navigation completely anonymous. It's the same system that allows Iranian activists to exchange information and Chinese bloggers to avoid the censors. Once you download the program, a few minutes later the game is set – you can browse in this vast, free zone without any controls or rules -- where nobody knows who does what.
Silk Road looks a bit like Amazon. There are photos of the products, prices, delivery times and consumer reviews. The logo is a Bedouin on a camel. A few months ago they stopped selling weapons, those are forbidden. But everything else is there, just a click away: counterfeit clothing, medicines, performance-enhancing drugs, false passports and pornographic materials.
There are 4,400 kinds of drugs available. The most popular at the moment are the synthetic stimulant drugs 4-MMC (mephedrone) and crystal meth (methamphetamine) – colorless, odorless and tasteless. Homemade, these synthetic drugs sometimes prove a fatal mix, regularly claiming the lives of young people on the outskirts of Moscow, the nightclubs of Ibiza and at raves on Brazilian beaches. This "high" is globalized – it breaks down borders and travels in small packages from one continent to another, spreading addiction.
Online payments and home delivery
On Silk Road, payments are made through Bitcoin, the electronic payment system that leaves no traces. The site automatically generates a virtual currency through a series of computers networked together. All you need to buy some of this currency is a credit card. You register your Bitcoin account with the site and then you are ready to purchase what you want, in total anonymity.
Many dealers, though, refuse to ship to new customers. The first attempt at buying something on Silk Road doesn’t always work, and there is always the risk of ending up on the black list of "suspicious buyers." But after winning the trust of the dealers you can shop freely. After a few days the parcel of drugs arrives at its destination – through the mail.
"Because it is dematerialized, Silk Road is very difficult to tackle," admits one investigator. The supply of drugs increases at an exponential rate. There are those who sell a few grams of marijuana, but there are also others who sell a kilogram of cocaine or 100 ecstasy pills at a time.
"There is a real risk that organized crime is turning to these new channels," says Andrea Ceccobelli, a captain of the Italian Finance Police, specialized in technology-related crimes. "In other countries it's already happening – in Russia, the mafia has been recruiting computer science graduates for years.”
In the past six months the number of dealers on Silk Road has more than doubled. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon University, the monthly profits from the first half of 2012 were around 1.5 million euros.
The site’s mysterious administrator must be very happy, as he earns a commission of 6% on every sale. He calls himself "Dread Pirate Roberts" (after the pirate in The Princess Bride film) and calls the dealers "heroes." For months, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency has been hunting him. But for the moment, all they have to go on is just a nickname on a site that does not exist.