The best kittens, technology, and video games blog in the world.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

If assassination markets were real

Night Stalker by New Talent Modelling from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

I'm rich! Extrapolating current trends, my "investment" of 1 whole bitcoin I did for the lulz long time ago is on its way to be worth big $$$millions by the end of next year.

Anyway, let's forget the boring stuff like drugs and fake passports and focus on the most fascinating subject in the bitcoin land - markets for anonymous assassinations.

IRL assassins for hire

The world doesn't exactly lack people willing to break any laws for money - as all my previous bicycles can attest. And it sure doesn't lack people willing to murder other human being in cold blood for money - people sign up to various militaries in droves. And there sure is a ton of people hating someone else to the point of wanting to see them dead - or having a business or political interest in someone else dying.

So you'd think all the ingredients were there, so why the hell do we have so few IRL killers for hire? There's a bunch of reasons on both supply and demand side. The hit is of course difficult to people who want to arrange and execute it. That doesn't make it completely impossible, but it at least would make it expensive:
  • For a potential customer, finding assassin and paying them is both difficult and risky
  • For a potential assassin, finding customers and accepting payment is both difficult and risky
  • For a potential assassin, the murder itself is difficult and risky
  • It's difficult to hide the fact that the murder happened (and make it look like an accident) - and since the customer is probably connected to the victim, the customer is likely to be suspected. If that happens, links from the customer to the hired assassin (who is otherwise not connected to the victim) can be followed
And for whatever market rate for assassination would be:
  • Most people are too poor to afford assassination - and most potential targets (like cheating spouses, nasty bosses or whatnot) are hated only by one or a handful of person so there's no potential for pooling money to hire an assassin together
  • Even if one person was widely behated (yes, that's a word), any large scale coordination to gather money from large number of people is absolutely guaranteed to not remain secret
  • There are pretty strong taboos against killing others outside of some special contexts (like murder-happy militaries)
  • Even if people might be willing to murder another person in the heat of the moment, it doesn't translate to long and difficult process of arranging an assassination
  • Even if you got the money, potential customers have no way to verify potential assassins, so hiring an assassin means you're likely just getting scammed
And finally:
  • Whatever the price, and whatever the difficulty, the market is too small to be viable, so even if every now and then you have a filthy rich and completely amoral person wanting to murder another no matter what it takes - there are too few such people to make it viable as a career for potential assassins.
I think that about sums it. (or did I miss anything major?) I'm listing these points since surprisingly many of them are likely to weaken real soon.

Assassination markets already exist

Hired assassinations are by no means impossible. If you look at murder rate by country you don't see any neat normal curve - there's ton of countries with over 20 murders per 100k per year, and a ton with less than 2, and within a medium murder rate countries like USA there exist both very high risk and very low risk areas, rather than any kind of equilibrium.

It would be tempting to explain this away by country's wealth, and that definitely seems to correlate, but there are high murder rate relatively well off countries like Russia and Mexico, and very poor low murder rate countries like China.

It can't be definitely concluded from such summaries that murder rates have two equilibria, but it sure looks like it.

Now it's much harder to find internationally meaningful comparative statistics for lesser crimes, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't vary anywhere near as much (UK in spite of very low murder rate sure doesn't lack bike thieves), so multiple equilibria of murder rates are strongly suggestive that it's not just due to higher or lower crime levels (something which would have more of a log-normal distribution), but due to functioning or not functioning of assassination markets in different countries.

Judging from all the news stories from high-murder-rate and relatively well off places like Mexico and Russia - they indeed have huge number of assassinations, and victim profiles are very different. In low murder rate countries most fatal victims are either killed accidentally (like during a mugging), or by someone they knew personally. In high murder rate countries hired hits on journalists, politicians and other high profile targets are very common. It's not a coincidence that the only major political assassination in UK of the last few decades was ordered by Russia.
"dandelion" - "Löwenzahn" by marfis75 from flickr (CC-SA)

Hidden assassins for hire

There are two kinds of assassinations markets you can find on the hidden web. Easier to understand of the two are hidden services of self-proclaimed assassins for some amount of bitcoins.

Technology changed assassination equilibrium in many ways:
  • Bitcoins are very difficult to trace. They're not impossible, since high amounts of money are still traceable when they enter or exit bitcoin network, so if someone got $50k out of the bank a few weeks before their spouse got murdered, and that money all vanished without a trace, it's still pretty damn suspicious, and their computer might have a lot of traces of it all. By comparison someone getting $500 worth of bitcoins to buy some weed would not leave significant trace behind. For assassin the risk is even lower.
  • TOR drastically reduces the risk for both customer and assassin that the other is working for law enforcement, or otherwise risky. This is not absolutely risk-free, but it's very close to it.
  • TOR drastically reduces search cost. It's still difficult to tell apart a genuine assassin from a scammer, but it's really easy to find someone claiming to be an assassin, and for potential assassins it's very easy to find customers.
  • Since there was no direct customer-assassin contact, the customer getting caught (via victim) poses very little risk to the assassin.
Now I'm pretty sure every single such hidden site I've seen was a scam. However easy technology makes it to setup assassination sites, it makes it even easier to setup scam sites, and there were some pretty big give-aways that they were fake, like insistence on no escrow, no track record, claims to global range etc.

And for that matter probably the easiest way to disrupt assassination markets of this kind before they emerge would be to just setup so many scam sites that it would be impossible for anyone to tell them apart from the real thing.

But it's quite likely one day someone will setup a real site. Possibly a murder for hire site like the former Silk Road - with price of admission to get a "seller" account being a high profile murder to prove authenticity, enforced escrow, and no early finalization - the only way to get funds released being official confirmation of death.

I really doubt anything like that could emerge out of nowhere in any civilized country - if you believe my model of two equilibria the market for assassinations right now is nearly nonexistent, so nobody would bother going through major effort of setting one up. But what if let's say Russian mafia set one up, and then decided to also sell hits abroad, which would then increase murder rates in other countries until they jumped to high equilibrium? Once it's in high equilibrium, local markets in other countries could become self-sustaining, even if Russian stopped supporting them.

I'm pretty sure they have necessary technical sophistication, and necessary market over there, and with their government and law enforcement basically being just a different group of thugs, nobody would bother stopping that.

Crowdsourced assassination markets

The kind of individual assassination markets solve a lot of difficulties with assassinations, but they still wouldn't make it available to the masses. Basically anyone sufficiently hated by someone filthy rich would be a potential target - like journalists, (less corrupt) politicians, competing businessmen and so on. Just like in Mexico and Russia already, except a higher tech version of it.

But there's another much more radical idea - crowdsourced markets. Now a full disclaimer - I feel that unlike the Murder Silk Road mentioned before, this kind of market is pretty much impossible in practice - but it sure makes for a good story.

So the idea is that people would just pay money into the service to bet on someone they hate dying. Then once enough money was gathered someone would bet on a particular date of that person's death, then "helped" that happen and collected the cash.

In theory a group of relatively less wealthy people might be able to use this to coordinate a hit on someone rich and powerful, drastically affecting the balance of power in the world. And since the number of people willing to pay something to see someone dead is orders of magnitude greater than number of people having enough money to fund it themselves - that would ensure a bloodbath.

Of course even if that ever happened, the most likely outcome would be that the powerful people would use this to order hits on journalists and competitors (see Russia, Mexico and so on), and after a few high profile deaths they'd just invest a lot more money into security until it drove the assassination cost out of crowdsourcing range.

If assassination markets were real, how would we know?

Technology moves on, so it's entirely possible that one day real assassination markets will emerge, not just scammy sites ones we see today. So without insider knowledge, how would we know it happened?

First, it depends on how hard would it be to hide a murder. You sure want to make it look like accident, but then judging from places like Mexico it's either too hard, or they just don't seem to bother.

So the first obvious sign of assassination markets running would be drastic increase in murder rates in the currently low-murder countries. No shit, huh?

But let's assume that assassins all try to make it look like a suicide or accident. Many would sure botch it, so we'd see a huge increase in staged suicides and accidents that turn out to be murders on close investigation, or be extremely suspicious of it - a category that's really tiny right now, but which would hugely increase if assassins started running around, even if most were good at it. By the time police figured that out they'd have long cashed their bitcoins (since the hit is confirmed, there's limits to how long an escrow can be practically accepted).

Either way, profile of the victims would shift towards Mexican or Russian levels. Life expectancy of investigatory journalist and dissidents would drastically fall, due to all the "accidents" such professions now carry. Even bloggers would be at risk!

In theory there's a change that such market would emerge but would stay small indefinitely - but if you buy my multiple equilibria theory that's not a stable situation, and established supply of reliable assassins for hire would find their demand somehow.

And if crowdsourced market somehow came into being... First of all, they can't function without widespread public knowledge of it, even in theory, so we'd surely know. Then, we'd see a bunch of very high profile deaths. Some obvious ones - politicians are hate magnets these days - but it wouldn't be that surprising if a bunch of crazy people thought it hilarious to bet on just about any public figure able to generate sufficient level of negative emotions, like let's say Justin Bieber.

So as long as Justin Bieber lives, we know the world is safe.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

If you're looking for the #1 Bitcoin exchange company, then you should use YoBit.