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Inside the secret online marketplace for illegal weapons

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Anyone with an internet connection can access "The Armory," where some of the deadliest weapons known to man are for sale.

With just a few clicks, anyone with an internet connection can obtain some of the deadliest weapons known to man, an investigation by tech blog Gizmodo has revealed.

These include AK-47s, Bushmaster military rifles and even grenades -- all of which can be sold, bought, sent and delivered on the Armory, a hidden website that functions as an online black market for illegal firearms. It's there that Gizmodo writer Sam Biddle, who went undercover as an anonymous buyer, discovered a transaction process that uses an elaborate scheme that involves identity-concealing data encryption, an alternative electronic currency and a delivery method that allows both buyers and sellers to bypass the authorities without raising even the hint of suspicion.

Concerns over the ease of obtaining guns and other lethal weapons has gripped the nation in the aftermath of one of the deadliest massacre's in recent memory when a heavily-armed lone gunman killed 12 people and injured 58 during a midnight movie screening just outside Denver. Shortly after, a paper trail revealed that the suspect built his arsenal partly through purchases made via a host of unregulated web sites, the Associated Press reports. The existence of such portals is alarming in that not only can they arm a single deranged individual with enough ballistics to carry out a massacre, but also supply a group of terrorist rebels with enough artillery to lay siege to embassies and government offices, according to the report.

The Armory is an offshoot of an illegal drug site called The Silk Road, and based on the writer's first-hand observations, operates quite similarly. To access the store, users must first install a piece of freeware called TOR, short for the The Onion Router. Millions of people worldwide have used the network to engage in all kinds of internet activity, such as visit web sites, send messages and put up online posts -- all completely anonymously. The technology, developed through the support of the US Navy, uses a sophisticated multi-layered encryption method to conceal the identity of its users. By encrypting and re-encrypting the data as it is routed and re-routed through several relays, online activity is incredibly difficult to track or trace.

Buyers wanting to make a purchase are required to use Bitcoin, a controversial form of online currency that's designed to work as a completely decentralized electronic cash system on peer-to-peer networks.

Once payment is recieved, the weapons are sent using a deviously clever shipping method where instead of delivering the order all in one big crate, and hence tipping off security officials, each weapon is taken apart and sent piece by piece until the buyer has enough parts to assemble the artillery. Though obviously not the most efficient way to buy a gun, the fact that the entire process is replete with fool-proof measures to conceal the identity, whereabouts, motives and actions of everyone involved makes the Armory one of the most effective underground marketplaces around.

Gizmodo reports:

But who are these anonymous online gunslingers? Nobody can know for sure. Nary a single one will mention where they source their wares, or provide even the slightest shred of locational information. You're lucky if you know what continent they're on. Some won't even talk to you unless you use an added layer of super-tough PGP encryption in all of your messages, gilding the lily with layer upon layer of software scrambling.

As part of the investigation, Biddle wanted to see if he could build a 20-person militia by shopping at the Armory and queried various vendors in search of anyone who would be able to fulfil his request. He eventually found a willing business partner, an arms dealer who went under the name Bohica:

Bohica seemed ready to deliver me enough weapons to take on the US government, to say nothing of some West African backwater.

I told each seller what I was ready to do ASAP, and they went off to get me pricing information and begin the long process of sourcing enough weaponry to arm twenty men through jungle and urban combat. Of course, I didn't buy anything—I don't have the tens of thousands of dollars to buy crates of rifles, or perhaps millions to buy helicopters and armored troop carriers. But there's every reason to believe that, with a little patience, a lot of money, and uneasy trust, these things could have been in my hands—or the hands of anyone else. Say, someone who wanted to go on a domestic shooting spree, assassinate a world leader, or any infinite number of other nefarious things you can do with guns and armored vests.

As disturbing as all of this sounds, there's also the possibility that all of this is a shell game, that the Armory is nothing more than an incredibly well-disguised sting operation to capture terrorists or members of drug cartels. But when the matter was brought to the attention of the ATF, they didn't seem to be aware of its existence, which led Biddle to eventually conclude that site had all the markings of a legit, covert operation.

Like abortion, the issue of gun control in the US is one of those perpetually debated issues that just won't go away. But maybe it should. Because in a time where just about anyone can anonymously get their hands on a semi-automatic, legally or illegally, these kinds of arguments just seem moot.

(via Gizmodo)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure