Dark net marketplaces are essentially Amazon.com of the underworld. Think of items you're not supposed to have, and chances are you can buy them there: assault rifles, credit card details, every breed of drug under the sun, whether they're conventional, experimental or one-off powders synthesised in a bedroom lab and named after a Stargate character.
It's that final category, drugs, that the marketplaces have become most infamous for. Countless outlets – including VICE – have written extensively on the dark net's dealers, power struggles and quirks, like the fact you can leave online ratings for, say, your last order of Blue Skypes, a luxury not afforded to people still buying their pills from the passenger window of a Golf GTI. Consumers, understandably, are just as interested as journalists. In 2017, the Global Drugs Survey found that over a quarter of British drug users bought their supplies on the dark net – more than in any other country except Finland and Norway, and up 200 percent from 2014.
Silk Road was the first prominent dark net market, before the FBI shut it down in 2013. This was replaced by Silk Road 2.0, which in turn was replaced by AlphaBay, Hansa and Dream. Though Dream and a few smaller markets still exist, AlphaBay and Hansa were shut down in July and, since then, buying drugs online has gone through a massive change, especially in the UK.
But is it the change law enforcement predicted? Not exactly. Instead of stopping the trade, these closures have forced many dark net dealers into selling on a different digital platform: the secure messaging app Wickr. On the DNMUK subreddit – a busy forum where British users and dealers discuss the drugs being sold on the dark net – out of the last 100 "Vendor Reviews", where customers rate the substances they receive in the post, 60 reveal their drugs had been bought using Wickr, while only four months ago there were almost zero mentions of the app.
Johnnie*, a customer who has used Wickr "a few times", tells me how he got started: "Like everyone, I just saw it all over the sub [subreddit]. Then I waited to see if it was safe and packs [of drugs] were landing, and they obviously were."
So, what is Wickr? The context I've just given you might suggest it's an app created by university kids with dreams of taking over the online drug game – but it's nothing of the sort.
Founded in San Francisco in 2012, Wickr is – first and foremost – a messaging app that allows for highly secure communication between "teams and enterprises". A business dedicated to the privacy of other businesses. In an age in which hacking has become commonplace, protecting companies from prying eyes has obvious appeal. As a result, Wickr hasn’t lacked funding; as of September, 2017, £51.8 million had so far been injected into the company, with its investor list making for fascinating reading.
Jim Breyer, Facebook’s first big backer, led a £21.3 million investment in 2014. Other financiers have included Gilman Louie, founder of In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA; Thor Halvorssen, CEO of the Human Rights Foundation; Richard Clarke, a former US counterterrorism official; and Erik Prince, founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater USA (now called Academi). There is no suggestion that any of these backers are aware that the app is being used to arrange drug deals that would have previously taken place on dark net marketplaces.
Wickr is available to download for free on the App Store and Google Play – though there’s also a desktop version – and is essentially a very secure WhatsApp. Unlike WhatsApp, however, Wickr lets you set how long messages can be seen before they disappear, and protects each one with military-grade encryption. Furthermore, Wickr hides identifiable information by adding random digits to everything in the air, before mixing it all up in a mathematical algorithm several times over, a process called "salting and hashing". This means nothing is ever truly stored, making it useless for police to seize a phone. Wickr is completely legal, and the company doesn't endorse or promote drug dealing via the app, but you can see why dealers and buyers are attracted to the security it provides.
While writing this story I contacted Wickr for comment multiple times, but they are yet to reply.
Nathan*, who has bought drugs via Wickr over ten times, tells me it seems "relatively safe".
"This is a feeling, more than anything based on fact," he says, "but as it's a chat app and not something designed for, or highly associated with, illicit activities, I feel it’s less watched and monitored. If a seller is compromised, I’m buying amounts which I think would of be of no interest to law enforcement, so it’d likely be disregarded as there are bigger fish to fry. Overconfidence, maybe?"
The increased usage of Wickr by dark net drug sellers and buyers is new, but look around drug forums and you'll find references to the app dating back to 2015, while on the DNMUK subreddit there are a few mentions prior to the current explosion.
Last spring, for example, Xanax vendor HulkedBenzoBoss began offering direct deals ("DDs", in dark net parlance), as well as customer support, over the app. This may explain why adoption of Wickr was so widespread among UK dealers following the AlphaBay and Hansa closures. Until his disappearance last summer – later revealed to be an arrest – HulkedBenzoBoss (HBB) was considered the gold standard of British dark net dealers. With cheap prices, perfect product and on-time shipments, he and a few partners built a multi-million pound drug empire out of essentially nothing, fostering a demand for the highly-addictive Xanax among thousands of British users. Dealers and customers alike may well have seen HBB was using the app and decided to follow suit.
Bob*, a dealer I messaged on Wickr, said, "It's just about what punters want. The risk we take is huge, so there doesn’t feel like much difference, though I’d probably prefer [to use] Tor [the browser used to access the dark net]. Wickr is a bit unknown."
The mechanics of a direct deal are as follows:
1. Message a dealer on their Wickr name, asking for a price list.
2. Agree a price and send the fee to their Bitcoin (or other cryptocurrency) address.
3. Give your postal address and wait a couple of days for the drugs.
That's it. A few messages in a few minutes.
"It saves time," says Johnnie. "Sometimes when you send Bitcoin to [your wallet on the marketplace] Dream it takes a while to come up, sometimes days, and that’s really frustrating. But with the app you can just go straight to the vendor and then there's no waiting."
"It’s much, much more convenient," says Nathan. "Dark net markets are sometimes difficult to navigate, slow and full of phishing links. Here, you just get a username, send a few messages and you're sorted. My current laptop also doesn’t support Tor, so using my phone is my only option, and dark net markets aren’t well optimised for mobile."
When more dealers began offering this service in September of 2017, demand was high. It’s fair to say those who’d been scared off by the markets' technical jargon were suddenly more interested in this more user-friendly experience. However, the majority were experienced dark net users who’d grown tired of its unpredictability – some had lost money in the AlphaBay and Hansa closures, and Dream didn’t seem much steadier.
The DNMUK subreddit proved a coalface for these deals. Dozens of threads popped up with users wanting to know dealers' Wickr names and how it all worked. Soon, threads became so overwhelming that a moderator pinned one to the top of the page – "Anyone who wants to post their wickr contact details can do so [here]," she wrote.
Bob says dealing on Wickr is "a lot more work. People want to chat shit about stuff that isn’t even drugs. Orders pile up. Some vendors have puts limits on it, like you can only order over a certain amount."
With investors like Jim Breyer and Erik Prince, it's no wonder big business is flocking to Wickr. Recently, Uber made the news when executives revealed during a lawsuit that Wickr was widely used there, and that in October of 2016 it had started paying for a business version, which allows users to set message visibility for up to a year rather than the free version's six days. Though use of disappearing messaging apps is technically legal, Uber came under fire because companies also have an obligation to preserve records that may be seen as relevant to any future litigation.
Wickr has found its way into politics, too. Following the hacking scandal of the US presidential election – where WikiLeaks released thousands of Democratic Party emails and documents – swathes of Democrat politicians began using it in 2017. In 2015, it was revealed that the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, also uses the app.
Now, reading the hundreds of Vendor Reviews posted on the DNMUK Reddit over the past four months and seeing the word Wickr regularly appear alongside "ketamine", "cocaine" and "heroin", it does feel like the tool that allows much of the world's elite to communicate has been slightly coopted by the online drug community.
Obviously, there are downsides to buying on Wickr – especially in relation to drug safety. Though the DNMUK subreddit does a decent job sounding the alarm over dodgy substances in Britain, the dark net’s inbuilt ratings system definitely feels like a first line of defence users can’t afford to lose, especially when drug deaths are at an all-time high in the UK because of dodgy or super strength substances. Scams are also rife on the app. Occasionally dealers disappear from the dark net markets with customers' money ("exit scamming"), but, on Wickr, cons are a daily fact of life – impersonators contact people all the time claiming to be known dealers, looking for Bitcoin for nonexistent drugs.
Today, though, Wickr represents a growing number of people being able to buy strong and plentiful drugs online. Though the percentage of dark net users migrating over is already significant, wait until dealers invade "clear net" – i.e. normal internet – spaces and make known how easy it is to use Wickr. To see the beginnings of this, just search #wickr on Instagram.
"This will be the new way of online dealing," says Nathan, "the ease being the main factor and, coupled with Reddit, you can trust that opinions on vendors and products are for the most part truthful. It also feels like you can get to know the people you’re talking to – it feels like you’re messaging an acquaintance to sort you out for the weekend, not doing something highly illegal on the internet."
Bob calls the evolution of dealing "endless. If people want drugs, they’re going to get them, and this is just the next step."
So, what can Wickr do about all this? If there is a plan, they don't seem keen to share it with me, having not replied to my requests for comment. But considering their entire existence depends on the security these dealers are exploiting, they seem a little hamstrung.
Welcome to drug dealing in 2018.
*Names have been changed
This article originally appeared on VICE UK