Gardai have arrested a 25-year-old man in Co Wicklow in connection with a US-based investigation into Silk Road, the internet black-market website on which illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine can be purchased with the digital currency, bitcoin.
News of the arrest comes as Irish criminals are buying an arsenal of deadly high-powered guns and illegal drugs on the "dark internet", the Sunday Independent has learned.
A garda spokesman last night confirmed to the Sunday Independent that gardai arrested a 25-year-old man on Friday after a search at a house in Johnstown Court, Kilpedder, Co Wicklow, in connection with an international investigation into online offences.
A number of computers and USB sticks were seized in the search, the spokesman said.
The man was detained at Bray Garda Station charged under Section 74 of the Obstruction of the Criminal Justice Act. He has since been released and will appear at Bray District Court on January 13 next at 10.30am.
The charges followed the arrest in October of alleged Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, who is known online as 'Dread Pirate Roberts'.
US authorities shut down Silk Road at the time of Ulbricht's arrest --though last month a new marketplace carrying the same name and appearance debuted online.
Elsewhere, the Department of Justice last night confirmed that so-called dark net sites -- anonymous and virtually untraceable global networks -- are being used in this country to supply and source illegal drugs and firearms.
"Possession or supply of illegal drugs or unlicensed firearms carry heavy penalties irrespective of the source," a spokesman said.
Various dark internet websites contain thousands of listings for high-grade cocaine, speed, a range of synthetic drugs and heroin.
Last week, US sellers in this underworld were offering to ship weapons -- such as Bulgarian-made AK-74 rifles and Glock handguns -- worldwide.
On one site, heroin was among the drugs for sale, while the equipment needed to make crystal meth and ecstasy could also be accessed.
On another site, forged passports could be bought, with the website boasting that it can arrange travel to any country of choice where a new identity can be created.
False credit card numbers, fake passports and driving licences, and instructions on how to hack an ATM are all readily available for the right price. The dark net refers to the criminal part of the internet which is not normally visible on search engines such as Google. The sites are described as being the illegal equivalent to any online marketplace, as the products on offer are almost all illegal.
A leading cyber-intelligence analyst said the dark net is now at least 15 times larger than the web most users access, with more than 900 billion pages available.
The Silk Road is a so-called 'onion site', hidden from regular internet searches and accessible using special software. It accepted bitcoins, an electronic currency used by criminals to mask their financial transactions, before the FBI shut the site down in October. At its peak, it had the equivalent of €900m in annual sales.
The Irish customs and postal authorities are involved with gardai in what is now a growing resource for internationally based criminals.
All incoming international parcel mail is routed through An Post's mail centre in Portlaoise, where customs officials maintain a 24/7 presence.
A Revenue Commissioners spokeswoman said it has staff at postal centres tasked with intercepting firearms and drugs ordered online.
"The sharing of information relating to suspect internet sales in either illicit or restricted products including medicines, controlled drugs, psychoactive substances and firearms is a feature of ongoing joint operations with other national and international agencies," the spokeswoman told the Sunday Independent.
So far this year, Revenue has made 674 seizures of 38kg of drugs through Ireland's four mail centres, with an approximate street value of €1.1m. There have also been seizures of weapons, ammunition and explosive devices.