Cryptomarkets represent an important drug market innovation by bringing buyers and sellers of illegal drugs together in a ‘hidden’ yet public online marketplace. We ask: How do cryptomarket drug sellers and buyers perceive the risks of detection and arrest, and attempt to limit them?
We analyse selected texts produced by vendors operating on the first major drug cryptomarket, Silk Road (N = 600) alongside data extracted from the marketplace discussion forum that include buyer perspectives. We apply Fader’s (2016) framework for understanding how drug dealers operating ‘offline’ attempt to reduce the risk of detection and arrest: visibility reduction, charge reduction and risk distribution.
We characterize drug transactions on cryptomarkets as ‘stretched’ across time, virtual and physical space, and handlers, changing the location and nature of risks faced by cryptomarket users. The key locations of risk of detection and arrest by law enforcement were found in ‘offline’ activities of cryptomarket vendors (packaging and delivery drop-offs) and buyers (receiving deliveries). Strategies in response involved either creating or disrupting routine activities in line with a non-offending identity. Use of encrypted communication was seen as ‘good practice’ but often not employed. ‘Drop shipping’ allowed some Silk Road vendors to sell illegal drugs without the necessity of handling them.
Silk Road participants neither viewed themselves as immune to, nor passively accepting of, the risk of detection and arrest. Rational choice theorists have viewed offending decisions as constrained by limited access to relevant information. Cryptomarkets as ‘illicit capital’ sharing communities provide expanded and low-cost access to information enabling drug market participants to make more accurate assessments of the risk of apprehension. The abundance of drug market intelligence available to those on both sides of the law may function to speed up innovation in illegal drug markets, as well as necessitate and facilitate the development of law enforcement responses