WADA publishes findings of study into the sale of prohibited substances on the dark web


A year-long research project led by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) independent Intelligence and Investigations (I&I) Department into the extent and nature of the trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) on the dark web has concluded that it is a marginal activity and very unlikely to be a significant source of drugs for high-level athletes or coaches.

Published today, the study was led by WADA I&I’s Confidential Information Unit in collaboration with the Agency’s Science Department and Professor David Décary-Hétu from the University of Montreal’s School of Criminology in Quebec, Canada. It was initiated in an effort to better understand the extent of PED trafficking on the dark web and to assess the type and quality of PEDs being trafficked there.

WADA I&I Director, Gunter Younger, said: “This study has been very useful in understanding the dark web from the point of view of a possible marketplace for prohibited substances. While the dark web does offer anonymity, buying performance-enhancing drugs there is fraught with risk. In a large majority of cases, what you think you have purchased is not what you receive. Sometimes you get less, sometimes more, sometimes it is not even the substance you ordered. And you will never know unless you test it yourself. Also, purchasing prohibited substances on the dark web carries a significant set of other challenges, such as fraud, cryptocurrency fluctuations and unreliable delivery.

“This project was another great example of collaboration in anti-doping. It undertook a multidisciplinary approach combining data-driven, open-source intelligence with scientific analysis and active intelligence gathering, with each of these techniques able to explore a different aspect of the dark web landscape. I would like to thank Professor David Décary-Hétu and his research team at the University of Montreal for the data monitoring part of the study, as well as our colleagues in WADA’s Science Department for their testing and analysis expertise.”

The main conclusions of the study reveal:

  • It is very unlikely that high-level athletes would use this source for PED purchases; it attracts more low-level athletes, such as amateur or non-competitive bodybuilders.
  • PED trafficking appears to be a marginal activity, both in absolute numbers and relative to the overall clear web and dark web underground economy. PED purchases represent only a small fraction of all dark web marketplace listings.
  • Dark web PED trafficking favors small scale rather than bulk purchasing.
  • There is no organized community of users exchanging information – the clear web remains a more active marketplace for the buying and selling of PEDs.
  • Laboratory testing data suggests products are often mislabeled or contain major discrepancies in terms of their concentration. In 83% of transactions carried out for this study, the product and/or concentration received was not as advertised.
  • Although significantly smaller in scope than the clear web, PED trafficking on the dark web appears to operate unchecked. The dark web affords actors the advantage of anonymity, which combined with weak regulations and a lack of enforcement, allows dark web PED suppliers the freedom to operate with relative impunity.

As part of this project, WADA I&I’s Confidential Information Unit has prepared eight intelligence packages, which have been distributed to relevant law enforcement and anti-doping stakeholders for review and further investigation.

In addition, the study makes the following recommendations and suggested next steps:

  • The targeted engagement of PED vendors should take place with the view to forging stronger ties with dark web actors for the purpose of collecting more intelligence.
  • There is a need for a similar study to be conducted on the clear web, which could then recommend comprehensive measures targeting both marketplaces.
  • Additional information should be collected from online actors using a direct approach via public forums in order to identify new substances and evasion techniques for the purpose of bolstering detection methods.
  • Following the effective application of a multidisciplinary approach in this project, it is recommended to replicate this approach whenever possible.