Side Event: Online trafficking in synthetic drugs: cyber threats, detection and response

Organized by the UNODC Cybercrime and Money-Laundering Section with the support of the United States of America, and the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section

Moderator: Live Brenna Cybercrime Programme Officer, the Global Programme on Cybercrime, UNODC

Today we will highlight the threat of online trafficking – interagency collaboration is key.

Asma Fakhri Coordinator, OPIOID Strategy, Laboratory and Scientific section, UNODC

Synthetic opioid problem is not COVID related – extended to new regions. Number of overdose deaths escalated to new levels in Canada and USA. Use of the internet and the darknet has increased substantially. Cryptocurrencies increases difficulty. Money laundering in cybercurrency – state of the art threat. Lack of expertise in how to deal with this. UNODC strategy has reached out and joined hands with other UN agencies to reduce threats. Building capacity in other regions, including SE Asia. Identify, intercept, and seize. Collaboration looking at innovative ways to create synergies to alert online officers through the UNODC LSS EWA on NPS before these substances end up in toxicology reports – we’re working together to save lives.

Neil Walsh – UN Strategic Response to Cybercrimes, Chief of cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering

We can only do our work thanks to funding by US gov. what we do saves lives. I used to be a cop and paramedic – there is a lot we can do, and that’s why we’re doing it – thrilled for our team to be part of this side event today.

Alan Piracha Foreign Affairs Officer, Office of Global Programs and Policy, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S Department of State

US remains focused on countering these dangers – precursors are adaptable and innovative. Really pleased to partner with UNODC and others to counter the use of online platforms in trafficking.

Himal Ojha Cybercrime Programme Officer, the Global Programme on Cybercrime, UNODC

Brief interview on ABC news: social media has made buying and selling drugs online so easy. Social media perfect platform. Why use the internet? Cost effective way to promote any idea on a global scale. Powerful tool for operating anonymously. New channels for trafficking.

Internet market places have gained attention in recent years. Greater anonymity, wider customer base, no need to face interactions. Can be on discussion forums, online shopfronts, etc. Internet contains vast amount of info.

Recent coverage: social media apps providing new easier routes to access drugs. Process is very simple – e.g. Instagram, “hash tagging”. People can search for drug names themselves, and can contact the dealers directly. Tinder and other dating apps are also being used. The darknet anonymises activities and makes investigations more complicated. Darknet cannot be accessed through regular browsers. Once a user is connected to darknet, can access other dealers. Access has multiplied since 2015. Most commonly used language is English – common reason for this is an added layer of anonymity and refrain from localised slangs, to not pinpoint location.

Illicit darknet marketplaces are easy to access – now using 2 factor authentication and policies to evade detection. “T-Drop” desensitises networks. Substances can be sent as gifts. Criminals getting more technical to evade law enforcement. Different encrypted platforms are being used, governments need to be aware of them.

Oleksiy Feshchenko Cryptocurrency Specialist, Global Programme on Cybercrime, UNODC

Criminals are selling drugs online. $1.7bn in darknet sales since 2011. Darknet sales are growing – the threat is real and is here. Advertisement is done in the darknet and delivered by postal delivery or ‘drops’. Don’t need physical contact and can bring high degree of anonymity. Cryptocurrency must be regulated.

The standard government response has four components – government need to understand/know about bitcoin, need to be able to trace, seize and regulate. Govts really invested a lot in tools against cryptocurrencies – now an arms race. Investigation software is helping to de-anonymize. Law enforcement developed good cooperation with cryptocurrency business. Governments can takedown rogue exchanges. Crime: shifting from Bitcoin to Monero. Monero much harder to trace. Decentralised exchanges to cash out bitcoin/crypto profits. After pressure from law enforcement new darknet markets pop up. Individual drug dealers sometimes set up their own shop.

UNODC solution: we provide training, policy awareness training, regulations assistance for government to regular crypto markets. 3-5 days for officers to start doing real investigations. Real bitcoins are investigated in training – you get practical experience. If you want to confiscate cryptocurrencies – you can learn skills in our training. Anyone can do our training! Even private companies and banks.

Very important part of gov response is policy and regulation. Risks can be mitigated – only reliable way to shut down operations is to switch off the internet. UNODC has a tool – a roadmap, very practical, no-nonsense.

Benjamin Inman Unit Chief, Joint Criminal Opioid & Darknet Enforcement Team (JCODE), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)

JCODE established by Attorney General of US in 2018 to target trafficking of fentanyl on online and darknet platforms. Specific to US – 2013-2019 – adjusted rate of death increased by over 1000%, over 300% for psychostimulants. 49,000 deaths related to opioids when JCODE was created. JCODE to centralised whole of gov approach to bring together a highly skilled group of law enforcement agencies. Partner agencies include Department of Justice, FBI, US Postal Service, Homeland Security, Border Protection, and others. Effectiveness of JCODE is the collocated structure of the team. JCODE distributes investigative leads. No one agency takes priority over another – proven to be highly effective. Partnership is balanced. Respective agencies and our partners – balance struck on multiple planes. Mission very defined – success in building teams capitalising. Unified mission – this approach has provided assistance to over 1000 investigations. A couple of successes to highlight – we take a proactive approach to investigating traffickers on the darknet. Process is fast – innovative and adaptive. Continue to leverage our expertise into an effective team. Series of accepted and complimentary applications. 300kg of drugs were seized, 7.5m USD (4.5 of which was virtual currency). We educate the public on the dangers of buying drugs online. If we can prevent one person buying drugs on the darknet, we can potentially save one death. 2019 – operation disruptor – on Wall St market. JCODE and international law enforcement contacted some of the most prolific drug traffickers. Culmination of efforts in 2020 – much larger global scale operation. Actioned along with Europol. Learning from past successes – this operation – 179 criminal traffickers were arrested. JCODE in its third year of operation. Threat is vast, is continually developing and changing. Working together leads to the most successes and disruptions. Opioid epidemic has multiple components of it – everyone needs to become experts in their own field. Issue amplified by COVID19 – people staying home and have more access to online platforms.

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