The case has its origins in the FBI’s 2013 closure of the popular Silk Road website, an anonymous online marketplace used for selling illicit drugs. When a second version of the website was shut down, American authorities were able to access a list of sellers and clients' names. Among these were hundreds of Norwegian traders who had operated on Silk Road. The operators also traded under aliases such as "Alfa&Omega", "Deeeplove", and "Kvalitetsbevisst" on several other dark web market places.
Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos) launched operation Marco Polo, the nation’s first and biggest operation against organized drug crime on the dark web and VG reported this week that the sting has resulted in the arrested of 15 people, including five men suspected of being the biggest online Norwegian drug dealers.
"These men were not very well known by the police beforehand,” police solicitor Richard Beck Pedersen, one of leaders of the Marco Polo operation, told VG.
Pedersen said that the alleged drug kingpins had been using comprehensive technological camouflage since 2013.
“The technology used by the suspects to hide themselves has been - and still is - the investigation's biggest problem,” he added.
Through the operation Marco Polo, since 2014 the police have arrested 13 men and two women who have traded a considerable amount of drugs on the Internet. The arrestees are suspected of buying drugs from the dark web with the intention of selling them within their local communities.
As part of their investigations, police also uncovered 150 marijuana plants in the basement of a house in Skien after a long period of monitoring dark web activity. They’ve also confiscated over 80 communications devices including computers, hard drives, and memory sticks. However, because of the high degree of encryption, much of the evidence has thus far been of little use to investigators.
One of the biggest problems Marco Polo faces is following the money, as most of the transactions have been conducted using Bitcoin.
“It is a challenge because the digital currency goes through several stages specifically designed to keep you from tracking the money flow,” investigation leader Olav Røisli told VG.
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Pedersen and Røisli said that many of the buyers are young recreational users who normally would have limited access to a physical drug marketplace. If it weren’t for the accessibility of the dark web markets, they say, the youths may have never bought any drugs.
“Not everyone will come all the way to Oslo in order to buy drugs. Now they can sit at home and order the dope directly to their mailbox. This way, the sellers can reach an enormous group of clients in every corner of the country,” Røisli told VG.
The Marco Polo investigations are still ongoing on and are expected to conclude before summer.