What is driving the rise of New Zealand’s ‘Tor market’ for illicit drugs?

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By Chris Wilkins and Marta Rychert of

The conversation

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Photo: 123RF

Analysis – New Zealand is generally proud to be a world leader, but there is one claim that might not be universally admired: being home to the oldest English-speaking market for illegal drugs on the so-called “darknet” .

Known as “Tor Market”, it has been active since March 2018 and has survived several larger and better-known operations such as “Dream Market”, “Hydra Market” and “Empire”. Tor Market’s longevity is surprising, given that many darknet drug markets have only lasted a relatively short time.

This does not mean that you will be able to find it easily. The darknet is an encrypted part of the internet not indexed by search engines. It requires specific anonymizing browser software to access it, usually I2P or Tor software – hence the local marketplace name.

Many darknets sell illegal drugs anonymously, with delivery by post or traditional courier, and resemble legal e-commerce sites such as Amazon.

An analysis of over 100 darknet markets between 2010 and 2017 found that the sites were active for just over eight months on average. Of more than 110 active darknet drug markets from 2010 to 2019, only ten remained fully operational in 2019.

New Zealand Postal workers are in the midst of a record-breaking Christmas amid a nationwide online shopping frenzy.

Many darknets sell illegal drugs anonymously, with delivery by post or traditional courier, and resemble legal e-commerce sites such as Amazon.
Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The fragmented darknet ecosystem

Darknet marketplaces have disappeared following increasingly sophisticated and successful law enforcement operations, including clandestine takeovers of sites for long periods of time to gather evidence on sellers and buyers.

Alternatively, site administrators pull off opportunistic exit scams and get away with the cryptocurrency held in the accounts.

No dominant international darknet market has emerged since the “voluntary closure” of Dream Market in 2019. And there seems to be a general loss of confidence in the darknet’s drug supply due to these closures and the exit.

While total sales across all darknet markets increased in 2020, and again in Q1 2021, data from Q4 2021 suggests sales have declined by up to 50%.

This makes Tor Market’s performance over the same period even more remarkable. Its listings grew from less than ten products in the months before Dream Market closed in early 2019 to over 100 products in July of that year.

After a steady period where there were, on average, 255 listings in 2020 and 379 in 2021, another period of growth occurred in early 2022. This saw over a thousand products listed on Tor Market at mid-2022 (see chart below).

This expansion has been driven by a steady increase in international sales, which exceeded the number of domestic New Zealand sales at the start of 2022.

At the start of 2022, over a thousand products were listed on Tor Market.

At the start of 2022, over a thousand products were listed on Tor Market.
Photo: The conversation

Filling a gap in the market

At first glance, New Zealand might seem like an unlikely location for a booming international darknet drug market. Its geographic isolation from major European and American drug markets, its small population, and its historical lack of any substantial supply of cocaine and heroin should all work against it.

Yet these factors may be exactly what drove this innovation in the market.

Darknets provide anonymous, direct access to international drug dealers who have MDMA, cocaine and opioids for sale – types of drugs that are difficult to access in New Zealand’s physical drug markets. It is also unlikely that these international sellers would have any interest in supplying such a small and remote market.

By offering deals from dozens of international drug sellers and a centralized forum for buyers, Tor Market solves the very real economic problem of “thin markets” in the New Zealand drug scene, where there is no simply not enough buyers to support sellers of certain types of drugs. .

Usually, buyers and sellers would find it difficult to connect and therefore justify large-scale international traffic. Darknets solve this problem by offering retail quantities of traditionally hard-to-find drug types, such as MDMA, directly to buyers.

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“Tor Market”, it has been active since March 2018 and has survived several larger and better known operations through increasingly sophisticated and successful law enforcement operations.
Photo: 123rf

Size and control

New Zealanders have a history of innovative solutions to the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’. They also have a relatively high level of digital engagement and online shopping habits by international standards. Perhaps darknets provide a familiar online shopping experience.

For their part, the administrators of Tor Market claim (based on their own site’s help manual) to offer a range of design innovations and features that keep Tor Market secure.

This type of bragging is not uncommon among darknet operators as a marketing strategy to attract new vendors to a site. And it’s unclear if Tor Market really offers superior security features or coding infrastructure compared to other sites.

More believable is Tor Market’s alleged business strategy of deliberately seeking to maintain a low profile against larger international sites. Indeed, many sellers on Tor Market at first were based in New Zealand and only sold to local buyers.

The increase in international listings in the Tor market may reflect broader issues in the darknet ecosystem, including the shutdown of previously dominant darknet markets and the unreliability of many sites due to denial of service attacks.

Ultimately, Tor Market’s success may be its downfall. It remains to be seen whether it can sustain its international growth and operate with a higher international profile, given the attendant risk of international law enforcement staring its way.

*Chris Wilkins is Associate Professor of Illegal Drugs Research, Massey University, and Marta Rychert is Senior Researcher in Drug Policy, Massey University

This article first appeared on The Conversation website

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