According to a new RAND Corporation study, close to 60 percent of the weapons sold on darknet marketplaces originate from the United States. In contrast, European countries, collectively, only accounted for 23 percent of the darknet firearm transactions. The data collection occurred while Alphabay and Hansa still functioned as active marketplaces; thus, the number of total listings is far different now than when the data collection took place. Ultimately, though, that has negligible relevance.
And although some of the markets had effectively no weapon listings, Dream marketplace and Valhalla marketplace ranked second and third for the most armament-related listings. Alphabay, unsurprisingly, topped the chart and Hansa market landed in fourth place. So, despite takedown of the market with the most weapon listings, a significant number of listings remain. In fact, according to the data pulled by the research team, Dream marketplace had nearly double the listings than that of Alphabay. For overall listings, that is.
The data collection took place in September 2016 with a darknet crawler and scraper called DATACRYPTO. The crawler was programmed to crawl marketplaces and extract relevant data. In this case, the crawler pulled the product title; product description; listing price; number of customer feedbacks for the listing; the country or region from which a vendor ships the product; the country or regions to which the vendor placing the listing is willing to ship. DATACRYPTO—and the study as a whole—focused on 12 darknet markets.
Between September 19 and September 25, the researchers collected a dataset of 167,693 listings, 811 of which proved useful for weapons-related data. DATACRYPTO correctly identified 560 weapon listings and a team of seven researchers identified the remaining 251 entries. The data collection was allowed for an incredibly advanced analysis on the types of weapons sold, makes and models, vendor locations, and more.
“Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 percent), followed by rifles (10 percent) and sub-machine guns (6 percent),” report explained. “The Replicas accounted for a minority of listings placed by vendors for pistols (17 percent) and rifles (9 percent); nearly six in 10 (59 percent) submachine gun listings, in contrast, were replicas.”
Of the 811 weapon related listings, 332 were for physical firearms; another 218 were for digital products; 178 were for ammunition—something rarely sold independently of weapons; 81 listings were for rifles; and less than 50 listings offered submachine guns. The digital products category consisted of “how to” guides on constructing weapons or making explosives from home. The category also contained 3D models of weapon parts that a buyer could use to print specific pieces of a weapon.
The vast majority of the digital product category consisted of the eBook guides on creating weapons. Researchers only found 11 listings for 3D printing models. “Five of these listings contained a file for printing only one firearm, with the remaining six providing files for printing of a larger number of different firearm models and components,” the researcher wrote.
The study concluded with a number of findings related to the global impact of firearms on these darknet marketplaces:
- The overwhelming majority of listings appear to be open to worldwide destinations, making it difficult to identify where buyers are located; where data is available, Europe appears to be a key recipient of firearms sold on the dark web.
- The scale of the market remains limited, making it a more viable and attractive option for individuals and small groups than for larger criminal groups or armed actors engaged in conflict.
- The dark web enables illegal trade at the global level, removing geographical barriers between vendors and buyers and increasing their personal safety through a series of anonymising features protecting the identity of individuals involved.
Giacomo Persi Paoli, the report’s lead author, noted that the online arms trade was “a drop in the ocean” when compared to the offline, standard arms trade. Some recent events indicated that cryptomarkets enabled illegal weapon sales in places where a gun would have been otherwise unobtainable. One such example is that of the Munich gunman. And while these marketplaces make guns, drugs, and other potentially illegal products available to anyone across the globe, the number of weapons sold on the darknet marketplaces is dwarfed by the sales numbers for drugs or nearly any available product.