Wildlife traders attempting to use the dark web to illegally flog rare and exotic animals are getting flamed by other users, a privacy expert has told Motherboard.
Joss Wright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that during his research on wildlife trade in anonymous marketplaces, he found that traders suggesting sales of live animals are usually met with "vitriol."
While the dark web is no stranger to illegal sales of drugs, porn, and fake IDs, Wright suggested that illegal wildlife trade coming out of countries such as China and Kenya is just not culturally accepted by a majority of dark web users.
"They consider drugs as very much a victimless crime, and it's very much a political standpoint," said Wright.
One user who proposed a sale of tiger cubs as pets was met with remarks such as "this is sick"
"One thing I can tell you is that when I did look through the forums for evidence of wildlife trade, I found, for what is generally a libertarian community saying 'drugs should be openly available to everyone,' [there is a high] amount of vitriol spewed at the people [selling wildlife]."
One user who proposed a sale of tiger cubs as pets was met with remarks such as "this is sick" and "you should be in prison," according to Wright.
"To date, I think the dark web is still very much a niche technology and it's a technology that is still very western. You need a high level of education and a high level of technical skill, and you need to be in a society that is strictly regulating the kind of trade that you're interested in taking part in," said Wright.
"There's been much less need for somebody in Vietnam to use all these complicated technologies like Tor and Bitcoin and all these other things to buy rhino horn, when you can walk down to a marketplace and do it."
Vietnam is one of the largest importers of rhino horn, and markets in cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offload large quantities of it to middle-class citizens desperate for the supposed medicinal qualities it contains. Still, this doesn't mean the dark web is totally absolved from the illegal wildlife trade. Wright said that there's a small but growing group of traders going online to sell "dead" animals goods as laws are tightened.
Wright is part of a new research initiative at the University of Oxford that is bringing together academics from conservation science, social policy, and cybersecurity to create a "whole picture" approach to tackling the advances of illegal wildlife trading.
The Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, which launched this week, will develop new tactics in fighting illegal trade, which has been fuelled by rising wealth in Asia and the growth of the internet. Part of Wright's task is to study online forums, both open and anonymous, for sales of illegal wildlife. The programme hopes that it will better curb illegal wildlife trade by understanding consumer behaviour.
"The focus of the online work we're planning will be in identifying the scale of the online illegal wildlife trade: the types of product, the volume of sales, the technologies used—from the dark web, to social media, to simple online forums—and who is participating," said Wright.
But the research has just begun, and although sales on the dark web look to be promisingly low, Wright implied that it could rise in the future.
"There has been increasing amounts of trade online, and I think as it becomes more global and the potential for trade becomes more global, we will definitely start to see more [illegal trade] online. Whether it actually happens on the dark web, whether people will actually go through Tor, or whether they just do this kind of thing through Facebook or other online forums is an open question."
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