On Monday, London's Metropolitan Police claimed that the dark web has contributed to an 18 percent increase of the country's already relatively high rate of knife crime.
Commander Dean Haydon, head of Scotland Yard's homicide and major crime command, told The Guardian that the increase in knife crime can be attributed to reductions in the use of stop and search, and a cultural shift amongst young people that is encouraging knife use. But he also said the dark web was being used to source weapons, including a so-called "zombie" knife with a foot-long blade.
In response, Motherboard conducted a survey of five major dark web marketplaces, to get an idea of the size of the online knife trade.
On those markets—AlphaBay, Abraxas, Dream Market, Outlaw, and Middle Earth Market—Motherboard found 27 listings explicitly for knifes, or items that could be categorised as knives (some knuckle dusters come with extra blades attached).
"We are seeing more 'Rambo' and Zombie knives in circulation as a result of internet sales."
The prices varied, from $15 for a hidden knife concealed as a credit card, right up to $116.46 for "Pantera Claws," which resemble the large blades used by the comic book character Wolverine. The majority of the knives were small though, ranging from around two to four inches, judging by the accompanying photos.
For years, knife crime has been a serious problem in the UK, particularly for young gang members. In a forwarded statement, Commander Duncan Ball, head of the Met's Gangs and Organised Crime Command, said, "The availability of knives, particularly on the internet, is a concerning trend; with young people able to buy a weapon without robust processes in place to verify their age."
Although that statement made no reference to the dark web, a Met spokesperson told Motherboard that "You would be right in including the dark web as part of that comment around the internet."
Ball continued, saying that "We are seeing more 'Rambo' and Zombie knives in circulation as a result of internet sales. These are large hunting style knives designed to maximise damage."
On the markets surveyed, Motherboard did not see any listings for the "zombie" knife, mentioned by Ball. The closest a listing came was for knives endorsed by Bear Grylls, the television presenter famous for his survival shows.
As for how many knives have been sold, observations can only be made for some markets. For example, AlphaBay lists how many times a particular item has been purchased: At the time of the survey, five of the credit card knives had been sold since April 6, and no other purchases had been made of the other three knife items listed on the market. To get a better idea of how many purchases had been made over time, research in the style of Nicolas Christin's recent paper would be necessary, where item feedback was collected over multiple years.
It's also worth pointing out that many of the listings across the markets predominantly come from just a few sellers. For example, many of the most popular adverts for small knives on AlphaBay as well as some other sites are from a vendor known as "fake."
There are a couple of other important caveats of Motherboard's survey that should be kept in mind. This survey did not include two of the most important markets to date: Agora and Evolution. Last month Agora closed its doors, claiming to take a hiatus after apparent security concerns with Tor. The administrators of Evolution, meanwhile, disappeared into the digital ether, along with millions of dollars of their customers Bitcoin, back in March. That, and Motherboard only surveyed five markets.
When asked how the Met knows that knives used in London have been bought from the dark web, a spokesperson told Motherboard, "This is based on intelligence, work being done by the Home Office and lines of criminal investigation by Trident teams involving gang members and weapons seized." The spokesperson did not go into any specific detail.
Regardless, from all accounts, the dark web trade of knives seems to be pretty small, and without more evidence from law enforcement, believing that the dark web has contributed to a significant increase in related crime is pretty hard to swallow.