Findings from the 2016 Global Drug Survey suggest FBI takedowns and exit scams aren't deterring dark web buyers.
Even though the FBI has used extraordinary measures to seize dark web marketplaces, drug users are increasingly turning to them to buy narcotics, newly published results from the Global Drug Survey (GDS) 2016 suggest.
"Despite all of the disruptions from law enforcement efforts and takedowns that have been successful, as well as the exit scams and all of this kind of thing, people are still using these sites to access drugs," Monica Barratt, a researcher from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW Australia who is part of the GDS core team, told Motherboard.
More people globally reported using the dark web to purchase illegal drugs, and some areas of the world have seen a particular increase.
8,058 GDS respondents out of 101,313 (8 percent) said they had used the dark web to source drugs
"We seem to have a pattern over time in the last three years of the Nordic countries [such as Sweden] reporting a much higher proportion of people using the dark net than most of the other countries," said Barratt.
"We can see that upward trend there. It's there for almost all the countries except for Australia and New Zealand," she continued.
In all, 8,058 GDS respondents out of 101,313 (8 percent) said they had used the dark web to source drugs. That's up from around 5,000 in 2015, and 2,000 in 2014, Barratt said.
Other findings from the survey show that a large chunk of those who reported using drugs from the dark web don't actually boot up Tor and spend bitcoin; someone else purchases the drugs for them.
"Forty-one percent of that whole group actually never went onto the markets themselves," Barratt added. She explained that, anecdotally, people sometimes buy in groups, with one person handling the technical side of sourcing the drugs. The majority of dark web users only obtained drugs from one market.
"Seventy-nine percent said that they did try a drug for the first time through the dark net"
According to the findings, MDMA and cannabis were the most commonly bought drugs on the dark web. That largely mirrors previous research that involved scraping dark web marketplace sales figures.
The dark web may also be allowing users to access drugs that they typically couldn't through other means. "Seventy-nine percent said that they did try a drug for the first time through the dark net," Barratt said.
The GDS asks respondents online a wide range of questions on their drug use, sourcing practices, and demographic information. Of course, this approach has limitations; it's likely those answering the survey are already somewhat interested in drugs, so the results are not representative of a whole country's population.
But it does provide insight into the habits of people who may be ahead of the curve when it comes to drug use.
"Given GDS recruits younger, more involved drug-using populations, we are able to spot emerging drug trends before they enter into the general population," the report states.
What is clear is that users will keep using the dark web for getting hold of narcotics.
"They're doing so successfully, even if in that environment of volatility," Barratt said.