Louise Shelley on Dark Commerce

ShelleyThough mankind has traded tangible goods for millennia, recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. In the past three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and, as Dark Commerce shows, now operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. In this new world of illicit commerce, which benefits states and diverse participants, trade is impersonal and anonymized, and vast profits are made in short periods with limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. Demonstrating that illicit trade is a business the global community cannot afford to ignore and must work together to address, Dark Commerce considers diverse ways of responding to this increasing challenge.

What led you to write this book?

My last book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism, pointed to the centrality of illicit trade as a funding mechanism for terrorism and transnational crime. As I finished that work, I realized that illicit trade was at the core of many of our most critical contemporary problems—the perpetuation of conflict, environmental degradation, and the destruction of human life. I wanted readers to understand that there are many who profit from this dark commerce, not just those associated with traditional crime groups. I wrote this book as a wake up call to the existential challenges that we now face from the many diverse participants in illicit trade.

How has illicit trade changed profoundly with the advent of computers and social media?

In the last three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents. Old forms of illicit trade persist that have been in place for millennia, but the newest forms operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. Illicit trade is developing rapidly in all sectors. No area of this trade has diminished in its volume or its geographic reach, as technology is a driver of the growth of illicit trade.

In this new world of illicit commerce, trade is impersonal, anonymized, and vast profits are made in relatively short periods. There is limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. New technology, communications, and globalization fuel the exponential growth of many of the most dangerous forms of illegal trade—the massive sales of narcotics and child pornography online; the escalation of sex trafficking through web and social media-based advertisements; and the sale of endangered species for which revenues now total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.[1]

In the cyberworld—particularly its most hidden part, the Dark Web (entered only through special anonymizing software such as TOR)—payments no longer occur with state-backed currencies, as customers pay for their purchases in a plethora of new anonymizing cryptocurrencies of which Bitcoin is the best-known. Moreover, in this illicit world, the very commodities have changed— many can no longer be touched or exchanged through human hands. Rather, many of the most pernicious illicit traders buy commodities based only on algorithms, including malware, Trojans, botnets, and/or ransomware (denies users access to their data), marketed by malicious suppliers in both the developing and developed world.[2]

Is illicit trade less of a problem in developed countries such as in the West, or is it a problem everywhere? Many potential readers may think of illicit trade as something that is far removed from them in their everyday lives. To what extent, if at all, is this an illusion? 

Many think that the problems of illicit trade are most pronounced in the developing world, and that the developed world is largely exempt. Clearly the markets of less industrialized countries are filled with numerous types of harmful counterfeit goods such as medicines, pesticides, and electronic parts. But dangerous counterfeit medicines have penetrated the supply chain of developed countries as well. Deadly drugs such as fentanyl are readily accessible through the web and the Dark Web, and they contributed to the death of over 72,000 Americans from drug overdoses in 2017. Consumers in the developed world purchase large quantities of fish that have been caught outside of approved catches, and timber that has been cut illegally and then transformed into furniture or plywood.

The changes brought by technology are most evident in the G7 countries—the largest economies in the world—but they are by no means confined to them. Investigations of computer-facilitated crime have identified their impact in the vast preponderance of the world’s countries. For example, in one recent online ransom attack victims were identified in over 180 countries.[3]

How has illicit trade contributed to current global conflicts?

Illicit trade plays a significant role in global conflicts, one example being the crisis in Syria. The Syrian crisis started with a drought. The subsequent illicit trade in water rights that made agricultural life impossible resulted in millions migrating to marginal communities on the fringes of cities where they were neglected by the state. To give you an idea of scale, there were 8.9 million Syrians city dwellers before the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. By 2010, 13.8 million. Of this almost 5 million person rural exodus, approximately 1.5 million were fleeing the drought.[4] The story of the Syrian drought refugees does not end with the beginning of the Arab Spring. Rather, it is the beginning of a “domino effect.” The Syrians departure from rural areas was the first phase of a longer trajectory that then took a more tragic course. These rural to urban migrants had to then flee civil war and destruction, many becoming illegal migrants relying on smugglers. The Syrian case is one of the worst examples of the growth of regional conflicts that has characterized the post-Cold War period. Illicit trade has funded many of the most important disputes and clashes of recent decades in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and between Russia and Ukraine.[5] The illicit goods associated with conflict include not only arms, drugs, and humans, but also consumer goods, counterfeits, and natural resources such as oil, minerals, gold, and coltan—ubiquitous in mobile phones and laptops.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Illicit trade has survived for millennia, but it has expanded in recent decades as the financial advantage grows in an ever more competitive and globalized world. The profit from this trade can be more than financial. States obtain political advantage as a result of illicit commerce, a phenomenon as old as the raids on the pirate ships of antiquity and the theft of new technologies. Yet its costs today are even higher and command greater priority from the global community.

Is there any good news in this story? Are we finding ways to combat illicit trade?

Countering illicit trade requires serious and concerted action by different sectors of society working together. We need a multilateral approach that encompasses governments, organizations, businesses, community groups, NGOs, journalists, and others working together to find effective ways to combat illicit trade. Already, exceptional individuals risk their lives for this objective, including activists and investigative journalists who counter human trafficking, the drug trade, illegal timber harvesting, and illicit financial flows. Many honest members of law enforcement are on the front lines against illicit trade, dying in the line of duty annually as they try to save human lives and protected species. New technology and data analytics tools are being developed by the government and the private sector to counter the growth of illicit trade, particularly in the cyberworld. Many individuals are involved at the local level in their communities to prevent harm to all forms of life. All these efforts must be enhanced and coordinated. Finally, citizens as consumers have an important role to play as individuals demanding more of corporations to counter the abuse of the new technology they control.

Louise I. Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy and University Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and founder and director of its Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. Her many books include Human Trafficking and Dirty Entanglements. She lives in Washington, DC.


[1] Larry Greenmeier, “Human Traffickers Caught on Hidden Internet,” February 8, 2015,  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-traffickers-caught-on-hidden-internet/ and also the accompanying visualization that reveals the international links, Scientific American Exclusive: DARPA Memex Data Map. Accessed July 13, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow/scientific-american-exclusive-darpa-memex-data-maps/; Channing May, Transnational Crime and the Developing World (Washington, D.C.: Global Financial Integrity, 2017), xi.

[2] Ransomware is extensively used in India, see CSIS, “Net Losses Estimating the Global Cost of Cybercrime: Economic Impact of Cybercrime II,” June 2014, 15, http://www.mcafee.com/us/resources/reports/rp-economic-impact-cybercrime2.pdf, accessed Jan. 23, 2017. A major analyst of the Dark Web suggests that ten percent of the content of the dark web consists of this stolen material.

[3] Investigators identified 189. Joe Mandak, “Prosecutor’s Office Paid Bitcoin Ransom in Cyberattack,” December 5, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017,  https://phys.org/news/2016-12-prosecutor-office-paid-bitcoin-ransom.html; Complaint U.S. Government vs. flux and flux 2, filed November 28, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/opa/page/file/915216/download; “Avalanche” Network Disrupted in International Cyber Operation,” December 1, 2016.Accessed Feb. 1, 2017,https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/%E2%80%98avalanche%E2%80%99-network-dismantled-in-international-cyber-operation This is the Avalanche case discussed in chapter five.

[4] Ibid.; Collin Kelley et. al. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” pnas,  vol. 112 no. 11, 3241-46; http://www.pnas.org/content/112/11/3241.full, accessed March 6, 2016.

[5] Paul J. Smith, The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the 21st Century, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 151-2.