Criminals are using the darker corners of the internet, hard-to-track digital currency and creative shipping techniques to sell illicit guns to Canadians, the RCMP warns.
The message comes as thousands of young people across North America demand an end to gun violence, and the Trudeau government moves to tighten laws on the licensing, sale and tracing of firearms.
The emergence of the darknet — the hidden depths of the internet accessible only through tailored software — is posing new challenges for authorities trying to tackle gun trafficking, said Rob O’Reilly, interim director of firearms regulatory services at the RCMP.
While police have shut down rogue online markets like Silk Road in recent years, others quickly pop up in the deepest realms of cyberspace, O'Reilly recently told a national symposium on gangs and guns.
He pointed to the Berlusconi online market, which at last count had 234 listings for weapons including AR-15 rifles, AK-47s, various handguns and countless rounds of ammunition.
The firearms are sold alongside opioids, heroin, cocaine, malware, stolen data, fraud tools, ransomware, pilfered credit cards and even depleted uranium, radioactive Polonium-210 and deadly poisons like ricin.
O'Reilly displayed a photo of an AR-15 magazine and ammunition shipped from a vendor in Montana to a Sudbury, Ont., buyer who had no firearms licence.
The seller made a number of gun-related sales via the darknet before being arrested, each time wrapping the products in plastic and then in Mylar bags before finally disguising them in food packaging.
"Darknet vendors resort to very ingenious means to ship firearms and related components," O'Reilly said. "In the darknet community, this is known as stealth shipping, and the intent is to disguise or hide the actual contents from law enforcement and border services."
Pistols have been sent in gaming consoles, computer hard drives, hairdryers and blocks of chocolate, he said. "We've even seen rifles shipped behind flat-screen televisions."
The digital revolution has spawned tools that allow buyers to visit sites like Berlusconi anonymously and make purchases without leaving telltale signs.
The Onion Router network, known as Tor, is often used by government agencies, activists, journalists and whistleblowers who may want to shield their online activities, O'Reilly noted. However, it can also be employed by people with less noble intentions, such as illicit firearms buyers.
Similarly, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin — the most accepted form of currency on the darknet markets — are used to obscure the transaction details from authorities.
"Such currencies present a real challenge for law enforcement because it doesn't physically reside somewhere, making it hard to trace without special, very expensive software and highly trained personnel to do the work," O'Reilly said.
Firearms and related materials are more readily available than ever before due to access to global markets through the internet, he added. Different international laws mean some firearms components and accessories can be illegal in one country but completely legal in another.
"This challenge has existed for some time in regards to our neighbours to the south, however it is compounded in a borderless online market that is truly international," O'Reilly said. "Once imported to Canada, these components can be easily finished and assembled through online tutorials, the results of which are often completely untraceable firearms, sometimes known as ghost guns."
At the same time, gun sales are occurring through more visible online vendors as well as internet forums.
Police training needs must be "continually updated" to reflect the rapidly evolving online environment, O'Reilly said. "Conducting online investigations, whether on the darknet or on the surface web, requires a very specific skill set."