The majority of the dark web is used for legitimate purposes, such as the sharing of information that is deemed illegal in many countries. However, the dark web has also become a haven for the sale of drugs, weapons, pornography and other illicit goods and services.
Efforts to shut down the dark web have largely failed, with the number of sites increasing by more than 60 percent over the last 12 months, the report said.
There are now an estimated 8,000 marketplaces on the dark web, with more than 30,000 products for sale.
The number of users of the dark web, which is estimated to be around 50,000, is also growing, with a significant number of them being young, RUSI said.
“The dark web is not a small niche,” said Keatinge. “It is growing in size, diversity and sophistication.”
A study published earlier this year by RAND Europe found that the majority of vendors on the dark web were based in the United States and Europe.
The United States was the leading source of vendors, accounting for nearly a quarter of all vendors, the report said.
“These findings suggest that the dark web is increasingly a global marketplace,” said RAND Europe researcher, Adam Winstock.
The report also found that one in four vendors based in Europe sold drugs.
“We have shown that the U.S. is clearly the leading source country for vendors,” said Winstock. “The fact that the U.K. and Germany have a higher proportion of vendors selling drugs online may reflect the fact that these countries have a higher propensity to use illegal drugs.”
The report said that the dark web is being used by organized crime gangs to sell drugs and weapons, and to launder money through cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
“The dark web is now a reality and this is just the beginning,” said Keatinge. “There is a new breed of drug kingpin that operates using this technology and the next challenge is to find ways to disrupt these groups.”