Business is booming in the dark corners of the internet. Since the closure of the original Silk Road in late 2013, around half a dozen dark markets have sprung up, all of which will sell you basically any drug in existence as long you have some bitcoin and a posting address. If you want a vial of liquid LSD, for instance, it's a lot more convenient to pull up OpenBaazar and order it on there than to wander around Glade Festival harassing strangers.
There's also evidence to suggest that the dark web is a much safer place to buy your drugs than on the street. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Manchester and University of Montreal published a paper that claimed "The Silk Road's […] virtual location should reduce violence, intimidation and territorialism [in the drug trade]." The study also points out that the system of feedback and user ratings helped steer customers away from bad vendors and toward more trustworthy ones.
But what about other illicit markets—could the deep web also make those safer? Every year, millions of migrants hire smugglers to transport them across borders. Much like the drug trade, this market is notoriously violent, so could a crypto-market designed to match illegal migrants with smugglers make the experience physically safer for those who want to uproot?
According to Professor David Decary-Hetu, one of the Silk Road study's authors, "[a similar] system could help—through public feedback of smugglers and the use of escrow services—to hold on to the payments until the illegal migrants have reached their destination."
I should clarify here exactly what human smuggling is, as it's a term that's sometimes confused with human trafficking. Human smuggling implies the consent of both parties. These are people who want to migrate to a new place but do not have official permission to do so. Human trafficking is when people are forced to migrate against their will, often being forced into sex work or otherwise held captive. Some traffickers may pose as smugglers to kidnap their would-be clients.
Human smuggling, often synonymous with illegal migration, is, understandably, often intertwined with politics. However, in a more general sense, it's simply people—both good and bad—moving away from a shitty situation and onto a better one. Even the most extreme supporters of closed borders would be ill-pressed to decry the Underground Railroad during the era of slavery in the South, or Jews escaping Nazi Germany. These situations are still happening today—for example, Kurds fleeing into Turkey to escape the onslaught of the Islamic State.
The VICE News film "Night Operation with a People Smuggler: Turkey's Border War"
Whether it's on a boat across the Mediterranean to Europe, a long way through the dessert to the United States or locked inside a container on a cargo ship from Asia, migrants will continue to smuggle themselves into places without permission. And thousands die trying every year; more than 4,000 already in 2014, according to estimates from the International Organisation for Migration.
I spoke with volunteers at a migrant shelter in Mexico about the dangers of a covert trip over the border.
"Migrants ask around to see if they can find a smuggler recommended by a friend or family," Eduardo, a former migrant and smuggler explained. "But these people tend to move a lot or end up dead or in jail, so often you can't find someone you know, so you have to take a chance and go with a stranger. That's when it becomes dangerous. The smugglers have total control over you, and some of them are very bad people. They might rob you, or rape you. They could leave you in the desert to die, or sometimes they work with traffickers and sell you into slavery. Migrants are always trying to figure out who to trust and who to stay away from."
On the surface there are a lot of parallels with the drug trade and human smuggling. Both continue to increase, despite increased pressure from law enforcement. Both are dangerous. Both could possibly become safer via a reputation based system that acts as a type of self-regulation among community members.
A digital black market for human smuggling would face some daunting challenges, though. Decay-Hetu explained: "A crypto-market for illegal migrants and smugglers would have to somehow vet the people looking to use the service so that no undercover agent is sent as a fake illegal migrant. While it may be possible, I think it would be very difficult to do."
"Another problem," according to Jason DeLeon, a University of Michigan professor, "is it's such a long and winding chain, and one migrant might pass through many hands."
Jason directs the Undocumented Migration Project, a study of clandestine migration between Mexico and the United States. "But if there was something like [a digital black market] that people could go to, it would change the game. Anything that can add accountability to the smugglers would be in the best interest of the migrants; right now there really is no recourse."
The VICE film "Mexico's Other Border," about the journey of Central American migrants through Mexico and into the States
Since the collapse of the original Silk Road, the emerging generation of crypto-markets have been evolving quickly. The Silk Road was a centralized system and was taken down after the arrest of a site admin. Something like OpenBazaar, however—which released its Beta 2.0 last month—allows individual users to each run their own "shop." Its decentralization and more advanced security features make it much harder—if not impossible—for authorities to control or shut down the network.
There's a learning curve to the access and use of crypto-markets on the deep web, and illegal migrants—who are often poor and lacking in access to modern amenities—generally aren't known for their technological skills.
Decay-Hetu sees "a small minority of people not making it onto [the deep web] or buying bitcoins, but for the most part I think it won't be a problem—at least at this point in time."
DeLeon is even more confident: "The newer generations are much more tech savvy," he said. "I think even if there wasn't a conscious attempt, I wouldn't be surprised if [a digital black market] happened anyway. People are already on the internet talking about which smugglers to trust. We shouldn't think about it as a hypothetical, it's already starting to happen."
It's clear that the tools and ideas are already there, ready to be exploited—but there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. It's unclear if an online, reputation-based system for human smuggling is possible, how popular it would be and how it would affect the safety of those who used it. But we're inching closer to finding out.