July 19, 2012 at 5:59 PM ET
"I couldn't believe what I was looking at," Sam Biddle, a reporter for the tech blog Gizmodo, exclaimed to me while describing his exploration of a "secret online weapons store that'll sell anyone anything."
Biddle — with whom I briefly worked during my time at Gizmodo — just wrapped up a month of research, which led to a detailed, engaging account of his attempts to outfit "a 20-person paramilitary group to overthrow a West African government in a Internet-armed coup d'état."
Of course, Biddle doesn't actually head up a paramilitary strike force, nor is he attempting to overthrow any regimes. Instead he was trying to see if there really are people out there willing to sell an anonymous stranger a pile of weapons without blinking an eye, let alone asking for a background check.
Biddle found his answer in a virtual black market called "The Armory." It's difficult to access and nearly impossible to trace, he says. Purchases there require Bitcoin, an electronic currency.
What's not required — or ever, ever discussed — are details about buyers and sellers. Biddle entered this underworld under the alias "triadische2." (While that may ring sinister in an old-school Bond villain fashion, the name was actually inspired by an antique poster given to Biddle by his mother — promoting a ballet company. "I didn't want to be 'gundude2000,'" he told me.)
Choosing a faux identity is much simpler than making a purchase, mind you. Once you wiggle your way through the software hurdles and encryption layers required to even locate the gun mart, find the wares you want, negotiate with a seller, and transfer Bitcoin, you still have to receive an actual shipment of guns — in real life. As Biddle reveals:
That receiving part is almost as tricky as the labyrinthine purchasing process. How exactly do you illegally ship illegal guns to potential criminals? In pieces. Small pieces. The crafty gun dealers of The Armory aren't going to just stick an assault rifle into a manilla envelope and drop it into a local mailbox. Rather, buyers get each gun component shipped in shielded packages — disguised to look like other products — that then require self-assembly. You get your gun, the dealer gets his money, The Armory retains its secrecy, and the mail carrier doesn't realize it's part of an international weapons smuggling operation.
Slightly scary, no?
Your neighbor — the one who keeps receiving mail-order shipments — could easily be putting together a tank in his basement, piece by little piece, thanks to the Internet.
Of course, these activities won't go unnoticed forever. A spokesperson for the for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told me, in no uncertain terms, that the law enforcement agency is "aware that there are illegal activities on the Internet" and that it has "people investigating it."
Unfortunately, as Biddle himself found earlier, the ATF was unable to confirm whether the specific online shop visited by Biddle is the subject of an investigation or not, as it could put the investigation — if there is one — at risk.
I suspect that might make Biddle frown. His final thought when we spoke, was about how much he'd love to see law enforcement read his report and swing into action.
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