Grant to Study How to Disrupt Illicit Cyber Trade of Narcotics and Counterfeit Drugs

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a major five-year grant to study the illicit online trade of narcotics and counterfeit drugs to Schar School of Policy and Government professor Louise Shelley and her co-principal investigator Edward Huang, an associate professor in George Mason University’s Systems Engineering & Operations Research Department.

Both professors are members of the Schar School’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC).

The highly competitive award, Shelley said, provides a new direction for the NSF as it seeks to foster sustained multi-disciplinary research among social science, computer science, and engineering to address major issues of national security. The computer science partner of the project is Damon McCoy of New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

The study will allow the research team to hire a Schar School postdoctoral researcher in the first year. Doctoral students will be hired to assist in subsequent years of the study.

According to the NSF website, “The objective of this five-year Disrupting Operations of Illicit Supply Networks (D-ISN) study is to understand the operations of illicit actors in the cyberworld, in both the open web and dark web, and the supply chains and payment systems for online drug sales, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and goods, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).”

“This criminal activity is of major concern to Americans as tens of thousands of Americans die annually from narcotics sale online,” Shelley commented. “Moreover, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many more individuals’ lives are placed at risk through the sale of counterfeit medicines and PPE equipment.”

The grant “seeks to catalyze game-changing technological innovations by creating tools and supply chain models to improve discovery and traceability of illicitly sourced products and identify effective disruption strategies,” said the NSF statement. “These supply chains will be studied from source to delivery through the money laundering of profits. The results will be informed by datasets drawn from open and dark websites and from data made available by industrial collaborators. The project will advance our national ability to counter malicious activities in the cyberworld and social media innovative approaches using mathematical models, supply chain analytics and computer science for the detection and disruption of drug and counterfeit supply chains.  

“The project uses a multidisciplinary set of methods which include data analysis, mathematical modeling, and ethnographic approaches to advance our understanding of online drug and counterfeit supply chains and how to disrupt them."

Specially, this project will address three major goals in combating drug and counterfeit illicit supply chains: (1) understanding and detecting the illicit trade patterns quantitatively and qualitatively by using data from the payment processing, hosting, underground communications and court cases; (2) constructing a description of the supply chain that can then be modeled using appropriate techniques such as non-cooperative game theory framework to study different disruption strategies; and (3) studying the possibility of different disruption strategies that could be implemented by government, corporate and multilateral actors.

“The project will integrate advanced automated data collection and analysis tools, sociological analysis of the illicit trafficking networks, and adversarial game theory frameworks. The project team's collaboration with industry and discussions with law enforcement agencies will facilitate an interactive process that can fine-tune disruption techniques and suggest pragmatic real-world implementation strategies and policy recommendations.”