Fighting Fentanyl with Data: How Law Enforcement is using Mobile Data to Combat the Opioid Crisis

This year, much of the conversation surrounding the growing opioid epidemic in the United States has centered on drug manufacturers and distributors. In October, four large drug companies reached a $260 million legal settlement with two Ohio counties over the crisis. Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson reached a similar agreement with Ohio state prosecutors earlier in the month. In September, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma agreed to a tentative settlement of as much as $12 billion to resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits. These stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

Given the scale of the opioid epidemic, it’s likely that these companies and many others will be forced to pay even more in the years to come—and rightfully so. For decades, drug manufacturers and distributors have used false advertising and other unsavory business practices to boost opioid sales, flooding the country with billions of addictive prescription pills while showing little regard for the consequences.

Unfortunately, efforts to punish these companies and more tightly regulate their behavior only tackle part of the problem. The epidemic that drug manufacturers and distributors helped create has also made them all but obsolete for many of today’s opioid users. High demand has helped make cheap synthetic opioids widely available via the dark web or encrypted mobile messaging apps, giving users new options for sourcing pharmaceutical-grade narcotics outside of the U.S. medical system.

How Synthetic Drugs Propelled The Growth of A Digital Black Market

Natural and semisynthetic prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone—largely produced by top pharmaceutical companies—may have set the stage for the epidemic we face today. However, they have been quickly eclipsed by cheaper and much more powerful synthetic narcotics. The Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker paints a stunning picture of this shift, showing how overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl have skyrocketed in recent years. Natural and semisynthetic opioids caused nearly four times as many overdose deaths as their synthetic counterparts in 2013. By 2017, the trend had reversed, with synthetic opioids causing twice as many deaths as the alternative.

Because they are cheap, easy-to-produce, and many times more powerful than traditional opioids, synthetic opioids have helped propel the growth of a booming digital black market. In October, the New York Times published an extraordinary feature exploring how the death of one North Dakota teenager helped the DEA uncover an enormous global fentanyl ring. That DEA investigation traced the source of this ring to China, where—according to the state department—somewhere between 160,000 and 400,000 chemical companies operate with little government oversight.

Black market drug distributors use these companies in conjunction with anonymized online marketplaces to move an enormous amount of product while skirting customs and government regulators. As one expert quoted in the Times puts it: “If Mexican cartels were the big-box stores of the drug market…the Chinese are Amazon.”

The Importance of Mobile Data in The Fight against Opioid Abuse

In the U.S., the government is free to tackle opioid proliferation at the source through legal action against major drug companies, but similar companies in China have been made untouchable due to the ongoing tensions of U.S.-China relations.

When it comes to U.S. companies, prosecutors and policymakers can and should fight to curb opioid proliferation at the manufacturing and distribution level. However, to address the spread of opioids sourced from outside of the U.S. medical system, law enforcement officials must also continue that fight at the street level. And in 2019, “the street” isn’t quite what it used to be.

It may still be possible to procure opioids via corner drug deals and sly handoffs in public parks, but like many things these days, it’s much easier to get them online.

The advent of online black markets like the famed Silk Road has played a crucial role in creating the global synthetic opioid market we see today. However, these centralized dark-web markets have become major targets for law enforcement, and increasingly, online narcotics dealers are turning to encrypted mobile messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp to do business. With powerful security features like end-to-end encryption and messages that can be set to ‘self-destruct’ these mobile apps enable the creation of vast, decentralized narcotics networks that cannot be shutdown with the closing of a single website.

How Mobile Forensics Is Turning The Tide

This summer, U.S. Attorney General William Barr once again called on Congress to write and pass legislation demanding that Silicon Valley companies like Apple provide the government with access to encrypted data. Barr’s argument is not a new one. Justice Department officials have made the same assertion for years, arguing that encryption makes digital devices into “law-free zones” where law enforcement officers cannot intercede in criminal activity.

Notably, not once during his speech did Barr mention the array of tools made available to governments and investigators for gaining access to encrypted devices. In truth, the sophisticated mobile forensic software tools available today give law enforcement everything they need to retrieve encrypted digital communications, including conversations coordinating the sale of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

What many don’t realize is that end-to-end encryption only offers security for “man-in-the-middle attacks,” also known as live interception. If investigators can access just one device used in encrypted communications, they can easily access all the data they need in a decrypted format. With device in hand, the only obstacles are the usual screen locks and other typical mobile device security measures—which are easily overcome through the use of backup procedures and physical extraction methods.

Today, law enforcement officials regularly use these techniques to bust active fentanyl drug rings. Just this August, investigators in Virginia busted a group that had amassed enough Fentanyl to kill over 14 million people. According to reports, participants in the ring used various encrypted apps to negotiate prices and arrange locations for purchasing and selling. This helped LEOs “move up the chain” in their investigation, with the final indictments delivering more than 35 arrests.

It’s clear that mobile data and mobile forensics software is already helping law enforcement combat the U.S. opioid crisis. The growing supply of fentanyl and other synthetic narcotics coming from countries like China makes this fight an incredibly crucial one.

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