Online marketplaces for illegal drugs are growing rapidly, with the amount of narcotics and illicit earnings up for grabs on the encrypted dark Web more than doubling over the past year, a Newsday examination has found.

The number of for-sale listings for illegal drugs on 10 of the largest online drug markets has risen to more than 40,000, compared with fewer than 20,000 listings on drug marketplace sites in 2013, online records show. The number of those digital markets has also more than doubled over the past year, records show.

The drug listings -- similar to those found for legal products on eBay and Amazon -- include photographs, descriptions, user reviews and asking prices for dozens of different narcotics, from heroin and cocaine to MDMA and anabolic steroids.

As the markets have proliferated, so has the potential for illicit revenue. Newsday's examination found current listings for more than $4 billion worth of illegal drugs on digital drug marketplaces, compared with nearly $2 billion worth of drugs listed for sale in October 2013.

The growth of the sites shows that efforts by law enforcement to curb online drug dealing have failed to deter thousands of sellers, who tout their illegal wares using encryption technology on marketplace sites such as Agora, White Rabbit Anonymous Marketplace, Silk Road 2.0, Outlaw Market and Evolution, critics of the sites say.

 

'We've really lost control'

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"The fact that the list of places to buy these drugs online is getting bigger, and the total amount of available drugs on the dark Web is also bigger, means we've really lost control of this problem," said anti-drug activist Alex Rice, 39, of Massapequa, who routinely speaks to college students about the dangers of drugs sold on the dark Web and whose son, Aaron, narrowly survived an overdose in 2011 from heroin he had purchased from a user on the original Silk Road site, which was shut down by the FBI last October. "I really thought the takedown of Silk Road was kind of a death knell for this industry, but it keeps getting worse."

The ability of local and federal law enforcement to track and identify users of drug marketplaces is made difficult by those sites' inclusion in the dark Web -- a collection of websites that are neither indexed nor accessible through regular browsers and search engines, authorities say.

Law enforcement officials have said those sites, some of them offering illegal products such as unlicensed guns in addition to drugs, are accessed using encryption software called Tor, which hides computers' IP addresses and allows users to surf the Web anonymously. Tor's administrators did not respond to a message for comment.

Before its closure, the original Silk Road site was the largest of the Internet's digital drug markets. It facilitated $1.2 billion in sales during a 2 1/2-year period using the digital currency Bitcoin, which is difficult to trace back to its users.

Officials at the time said the site's closure and the arrest of its alleged founder, Ross Ulbricht, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that include narcotics trafficking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, would serve as a message to people selling illegal drugs online.

 

Online narcotics to stay

But the fact that dark Web drug listings -- coupled with encryption on new devices such as the iPhone 6 -- have only increased suggests the multibillion-dollar online narcotics industry is unlikely to fade anytime soon, authorities say.

"This, unfortunately, is where the more sophisticated drug dealers seem to be headed," said a federal official with knowledge of encryption methods used by criminal networks.

The sites, he said, are frequented by tech-savvy drug buyers looking for high-quality narcotics from reliable sellers -- rather than seeking out street dealers for a product whose quality is unknown.

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"They figure the risks inherent in buying drugs on the street is greater than the risk of law enforcement figuring out they're buying drugs online," said the official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue. "A dealer can't pull a gun on you on the Internet."

Some digital drug buyers and sellers are believed to be living on Long Island and in New York City, the official said. Those local users are thought to be sending and receiving drugs in the region, often at post office boxes, the source said.

The growth of online drug markets has caused alarm among anti-drug-abuse activists and local law enforcement agencies, who say authorities need a way to better track dark Web drug sales in order to prevent overdose deaths and drug-related crimes. Heroin alone killed a record-high 144 people on Long Island in 2013, according to government records.

Suffolk Police Deputy Chief of Detectives Mark Griffiths has said the department's cybercrime and drug investigators keep tabs on drug trafficking sites, and Nassau police say they have an entire intelligence operation devoted to identifying criminals who try to stay anonymous -- often with the aid of technology.

The issue of encryption -- and the obstacle it poses to authorities pursuing criminals -- was brought to the forefront Thursday when FBI Director James Comey gave a speech on the controversial technology in Washington.

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He focused on how terrorists use encryption to hide their activities, but also said regular criminals are benefiting from the technology.

"Unfortunately, the law hasn't kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public safety problem," Comey said in the speech at the Brookings Institution, his first major policy address since taking the director's job in September 2013. "We call it 'going dark,' and what it means is this: Those charged with protecting our people aren't always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism. We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so."

Technology is as imposing a challenge as any law enforcement has faced, he said.

"Encryption isn't just a technical feature; it's a marketing pitch," Comey said. "But it will have very serious consequences for law enforcement and national security agencies at every level. Sophisticated criminals will come to count on these means of evading detection. It's the equivalent of a closet that can't be opened. A safe that can't be cracked. And my question is, at what cost?"