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How Silk Road gave international police the slip

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International efforts to shut down anonymous online marketplaces selling illegal drugs continue to struggle but Australian law enforcement agencies are having some success in hindering the flow on drugs into the country.

A number of established and new sites have scrambled to provide the illicit service to a growing international customer base after the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, founder of the largest anonymous marketplace known as Silk Road, and shut down his site in October.

“The only way I can think about it is like when you have a spider’s nest in your house and you hit it with a rake and then suddenly you’ve got spiders everywhere,” says Robbie Fordyce, researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society.

“They’re not particularly significant in and of themselves, but by destabilising the first Silk Road has just meant there was an existing market for the new Silk Roads and their equivalents to pop up again.

Silk Road drug listing. Photo: Screenshot

“Destroying the first one just simply got press attention for the others, basically.”

Such marketplaces elude law enforcement agencies by making use of the Tor network, which allows users to anonymously browse the “deep web”, and Bitcoin, a virtual currency that also gives users a high level of anonymity.

Waiting in the wings

Joe Van Buskirk, a research officer with the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, has been monitoring sites like these in the wake of the original Silk Road’s shut down. He told The New Daily that the weeks following the shut down saw dramatic increases in the number of retailers operating on rival marketplaces.

“We’re monitoring that as it’s happening and we can see that some of these marketplaces are falling by the wayside and others are popping up to replace them,” he said.

On December 20 an international sting operation nabbed three men accused of assisting Ulbricht maintain Silk Road, including Brisbane man Peter Phillip Nash. In the following days Silk Road 2.0 was inaccessible due to scheduled site maintenance. When it returned users were greeted by a message explaining that head of the site had been “forced into exile” by the arrests.

Despite this, Silk Road 2.0 has continued to grow towards its former size, now offering over 6500 different drug products.

A recent study found that seven per cent of interviewed Australian drug users had consumed drugs purchased on the former Silk Road at a time when the number of available products was similar.

Local action

Despite the difficulty in shutting down these global networks, conventional policing methods in Australia appear to be having an impact on the flow of drugs into the country.

A report by The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) revealed that the number of illicit drugs imports seized via cargo or post in 2012-2013 had risen.

“It doesn’t appear that buyers’ faith in these marketplaces has been shaken,” says Mr Van Buskirk.

“We work closely with federal and state law enforcement partners, as well as international partner agencies, to share intelligence,” said an ACBPS spokesperson.

“This collaboration results in strategic targeting and increased interception of attempted illegal imports. It also creates a global web of intelligence about known sellers and buyers.”

On the case

A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police said it and other Australian law enforcement agencies “are well aware of this method of drug importation and are committed to targeting and combating it”.

“High frequency-low volume importations such as ones through our mail system pose a considerable cumulative threat. These shipments contribute towards supplying the Australian market and exacerbate social problems within Australia associated with drug harm.

“Seizing these smaller importations can impact on disrupting the drug trade.”

The spokesperson said that in a recent operation six people were arrested who either admitted to or had evidence on their computers of using Silk Road. That operation netted over 140 packages containing 19 kilograms of illicit substances with a street value of more than $8 million.


Some international retailers have taken note. Over 20 European and North American retailers on the new Silk Road refuse to ship to Australia. Others require Australians to pay upfront for their products or offer no or reduced refunds if packages fail to arrive.

Yet many others place no restrictions on Australian buyers.

There are also at least 43 vendors based in Australia offering a variety of drugs including methamphetamine, marijuana, LSD and steroids. The vast majority of these only ship their product within Australian borders and claim to have a greater successful delivery rate than their international counterparts.

“It doesn’t appear that buyers’ faith in these marketplaces has been shaken,” says Mr Van Buskirk.

“At least for a while there will be a demand for them and people will find a way of making them work.” reports that there are currently 12 anonymous marketplaces currently active, including Silk Road 2.0.

Chris Shearer is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

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