If you've bought drugs in the last 20 years, you’ll probably be familiar with trying to conduct phone calls entirely in euphemisms. First, you might ask, "Are you with Charlie?" which leads to a series of misunderstandings, forcing you to blurt out, "Can I just get a gram of coke, mate?" Then your dealer calls you a fucking dickhead and relegates you to the bottom of the delivery queue.
Those phone calls are becoming a thing of the past, because now everyone is buying drugs over Snapchat and WhatsApp – it's less awkward, and everyone thinks they are more secure than talking on the phone. But as a new study into the use of social media and private messaging apps has found, they aren't as secretive as people think they are.
The study #Drugsforsale: An exploration of the use of social media and encrypted messaging apps to supply and access drugs found mobile apps are "fast becoming a viable option" for buying recreational drugs because they provide a "quick, convenient method for connecting buyer and seller".
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Apps are basically the middle ground between trawling dark web markets and finding a dealer on the street, without many of the downsides. Buying drugs on the dark web means converting your money into Bitcoin and trying desperately to complete a transaction before the crypto market falls off a cliff and your money becomes worthless. And, let’s face it, who’s buying drugs from random street dealers in 2018? Convenience and the speed with which deals could be arranged were the biggest perceived benefits of apps, according to the study.
For example, Zach, 22, told researchers: "It just seemed like a simple, modern way to buy things. I’d gotten pretty sick of the darknet because I never really got it, so had to always have a friend on hand to help me out. With apps it’s super simple; in no time I’ve managed to connect with strangers who I would’ve never been able to access before. Plenty of dealers in this area exist solely on Snapchat, so without it I would’ve kept relying on people approaching me in the street or randomly bumping into people in clubs."
More than three-quarters of those interviewed said they’d used Snapchat to buy drugs. Instagram was the next most popular, with around one in five saying they’d used the 'gram to arrange deals. WhatsApp, Kik and Wickr were all also frequently cited, with Tinder and Grindr also among the apps used to buy and sell drugs. The general rule is that social media provides the platform for connecting buyers and sellers, then deals take place using encrypted communication services.
Dr Leah Moyle, a criminology lecturer at the University of London and one of the authors of the study, says things got really interesting when buyers were asked why they used apps to find drugs. Because essentially, in just a few years, we’ve gone from widespread paranoia that dealers' phones are being tapped, to complacency over posting and viewing pictures of coke and pills on social media.
Mark, 23, told the researchers: "I realised rather rapidly that Snapchat was totally secure, as was WhatsApp. Law enforcement agencies cannot [access] any data transmitted over these apps." Moyle says Mark’s view was common among the 358 drug buyers they interviewed from around the world. "People felt there were security features associated with these apps that could protect them. On the whole, the people who used apps seemed to think they were fairly secure and the likelihood they would be picked up by law enforcement would be low."
The truth is, apps don’t offer anything like the security that many buyers seem to think they do. Because security features on offer, such as end-to-end encryption and the time-limited nature of messages, often come with important caveats.
For example, the researchers said unopened Snapchat "snaps" are held on servers and can be handed over based on a search warrant. Instagram shares user content and information with parent company Facebook and third-party advertisers. Similarly, WhatsApp allows information to be shared within Facebook. Wickr, even though it has message self-destruct capacity, has no screen capture prevention methods in place. Kik logs the IP addresses of users – as so do dating apps including Grindr and Tinder. And while Facebook Messenger offers end-to-end encryption, this is not the default setting – plus, as Facebook admitted today, the company has given various tech firms access to private messages in the past.
The researchers compiled a table which lists the security flaws and benefits of every app used to buy drugs. If that sounds relevant to your interests, you can find it in the report.
Then there’s the fact that buying drugs using apps frequently still involves meeting sellers face-to-face. Previous research has suggested that part of the appeal for users of dark web drug markets lies in not having to meet a dealer. But the study found app buyers are more nervous about having drugs delivered to their house. While some people use apps to contact dealers they already know, many interviewees said they had gone to meet a stranger to collect drugs bought via an app. Less than a quarter of respondents felt meeting an unknown dealer might be dangerous.
Perceptions about security weren’t the only reasons for sourcing drugs via social media. Buyers also said apps allowed them to assess the quality of drugs before deals took place. Lucy, 19, told the researchers: "The first time I bought Xanax it was through Snapchat because I could watch the dealer opening sealed packets on his story before he sold them, and I therefore felt safe consuming them… I would never buy anything I hadn’t tried before from some guy on a street corner or anything at all really, unless I was desperate."
In some cases, users looked at factors such as the number of Instagram comments and likes for reassurance about the quality of drugs on offer – reasoning that these functioned much like Amazon reviews. Danny, 23, told the researchers that the information available on apps was "far less than the dark web, [but] far more than the streets".
Moyle says: "For me, that was one of the most interesting aspects of the project. The fact that being able to see that product beforehand, whether it’s through a video or a snap being sent by a dealer, seemed to give buyers a certain level of confidence about that substance." Moyle says the idea that quality can be ascertained via an Insta story or a snap is concerning: "There’s no way you could make that assessment about a substance purely by looking."
Apps are also changing the way dealers do business. Moyle says social media apps create opportunities to find new clients, then the deals are conducted using private messaging: "Quite often the buyer and seller would connect over a social media platform then the dealer would request the logistics of the deal to be done through WhatsApp."
The days of handing out business cards or Rizla packets emblazoned with phone numbers are disappearing: the 21st century dealer is essentially a social media manager with an extensive mailing list of clients. "People told us about dealer spam: getting multiple messages when deals were available, when new products were coming in," says Moyle. "There’s more scope for aggressive marketing tactics." Indeed, mass text message mail outs (via burner phones) have been used by street heroin and crack dealers for years.
Buyers said apps provide access to a far greater range of substances than used to be available by tapping up friends of friends. Tim, 23, told the researchers that access to a wider variety of drugs was "the best feature of apps", adding that "it's very rare to find a dealer out and about who carries psychedelics in this country [the UK]". Jess, 23, from Coventry in central England, said: "I couldn’t get hold of oxy or codeine in any other way because I didn’t know anyone selling them, so the first time I had both I bought them through apps."
That’s potentially concerning, particularly if combined with inexperienced users and misplaced assumptions about quality. Moyle says: "The worry for us is there’s a lot more exposure to substances that young people potentially wouldn’t be exposed to if they were utilising social supply."
If there’s one thing the study makes crystal clear, it’s that pretty much every app with a social aspect can be used to buy drugs. Why wouldn’t they be? Buying pills on Instagram sounds a lot more convenient than trying to find a dealer in a club. And you might get more choice. But there are no guarantees when it comes to quality – and you might not the only one watching your dealer’s latest story.