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Data Scientist Analyzes COVID-19 Shopping Trends in Dark Web Marketplaces

The researchers are urging the authorities to keep a close eye on dark web marketplaces.

COVID-19 pandemic has skyrocketed the demand for certain products such as face masks, hand sanitizers, and more. From misinformation-driven panic buying to economical hardships, many factors played a role in peoples’ interests in these products. On a lesser-known side of the perspective, many people have shifted towards dark web marketplaces (DWMs).

A new research paper published on EPJ Data Science explores how shortages in the traditional economy affect DWMs and the response of DWMs to trends in public attention.

A journey through dark web

The authors of the paper, Dr. Andrea Baronchelli and colleagues, analyzed over 800,000 listings and identified 788 COVID-19-specific listings, per a press release by the City,  University of London. In order to extract listings between January 1, 2020, and November 16, 2020, from known DWMs such as Hydra, White House, Empire, and DarkMarket, the team used web crawlers.

The said listings included genuine medical products such as personal protective equipment (PPEs), medicines, tests, and ventilators, as well as guides on scamming, fraud vaccines, and fake medical records.

Data Scientist Analyzes COVID-19 Shopping Trends in Dark Web Marketplaces
Source: Dr. Andrea Baronchelli/City, University of London

Thus, the researchers were able to explore the temporal relationship of the trade of these products with public trends according to Twitter posts and Wikipedia pageviews, as well as with changes in the supply of COVID-19-related products in the traditional economy.

The results

The findings showed that DWMs responded quickly to sudden changes in public attention and also to shortages of mentioned products in the regulated economy. For example, face masks saw an increase in DWMs in March when there was a shortage in the regular economy, and they saw a decrease in the later months when they became more available again.

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Data Scientist Analyzes COVID-19 Shopping Trends in Dark Web Marketplaces
Source: Dr. Andrea Baronchelli/City, University of London

The researchers state that they want to draw attention to this side of the pandemic and are reminding the authorities of the importance of the continuous monitoring of DWMs.

"Uninformed citizens exposed to waves of misinformation, such as the ones related to hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, and azithromycin, may be tempted to shop on DWMs thus exposing themselves to serious health risks. Moreover, the availability of regulated products currently in shortage in the traditional economy undermines anti-price gouging regulations and regulated businesses which sell the same products," they wrote.

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