The SECI model and darknet markets: Knowledge creation in criminal organizations and communities of practice

Published date01 March 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/14773708221115167
AuthorMarie-Helen Maras,Jana Arsovska,Adam Scott Wandt,Melanie Knieps,Kenji Logie
Date01 March 2024
Subject MatterArticles
The SECI model and darknet
markets: Knowledge creation
in criminal organizations and
communities of practice
Marie-Helen Maras
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, USA
Jana Arsovska
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, USA
Adam Scott Wandt
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, USA
Melanie Knieps
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Kenji Logie
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, USA
Abstract
This study examines darknet markets through the lens of a business theory on knowledge man-
agement. Taking epistemological and ontological dimensions into consideration, this study uses
Nonakas (1991) SECI model as a theoretical framework to identify and describe how tacit and
explicit knowledge is created and shared on Silk Road, Pandora and Agora darknet markets,
and how people affect this process. By studying this process, insights can be obtained into darknet
market criminal organizations and communities of practice and their impact on the continuity and
resilience of illicit darknet markets. This project used data from the Internet Archive collection of
Corresponding author:
Marie-Helen Maras, Department of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management, Center for Cybercrime
Studies, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, 524 W. 59th Street, Haaren Hall,
Room 43311, New York, NY 10019, USA.
Email: mmaras@jjay.cuny.edu
Article
European Journal of Criminology
2024, Vol. 21(2) 165190
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/14773708221115167
journals.sagepub.com/home/euc
publicly available darknet market scrapes between 2011 and 2015 from Branwen et al.(2015). We
observed instances of the SECI model (socialization, externalization, combination, and internaliza-
tion) on darknet markets in both criminal organizations and communities of practice. Darknet
market leaders and groups facilitated both knowledge creation and sharing. This study is the
f‌irst to test the SECI model on darknet markets. The study provides an understanding of the com-
plexity and resilience of darknet markets, as well as valuable information to help guide law enforce-
ment agencies efforts to stop the illicit trade of goods and services.
Keywords
SECI model, knowledge creation, darknet markets, Silk Road, Pandora, Agora
Introduction
In an economy where the only certainty is uncertainty, the one sure source of lasting competitive
advantage is knowledge. (Nonaka, 1991: 96)
The most resilient criminal enterprises are those able to adapt to market f‌luctuations,
criminal competition and law enforcement action. This resilience is evident in darknet
markets (DNMs) (Maras, 2017). DNMs are criminal enterprises, with an identif‌iable
structure and core leadership and assigned roles for its members (e.g. administrator, mod-
erator, vendor and buyer), where the number and types of roles vary across DNM sites
(e.g. United States v. Ross Ulbricht, 2014; United States v. Alexandre Cazes, 2017).
DNMs also have rules that must be followed by members, actively enforce these rules
and punish noncompliance (ibid.). Within DNMs, signif‌icant criminal activity occurs,
such as the illegal sale of drugs, weapons, malware, hacking services, stolen data, and
counterfeit documents, money and goods (UNODC, 2021).
Unlike legitimate organizations that can defend themselves against competitors and
law enforcement action with legal remedies, criminal enterprises do not have these
means at their disposal. Given that DNM members need to constantly adapt to internal
and external threats to illicit markets and new technological developments, it is no sur-
prise that DNMs and their discussion forums have been described as a shared repository
of knowledge(Martin, 2014: 69) especially regarding issues of operational security like
the effective concealment of illegal goods in shipments, delivery of intangible illicit
goods and services and the preservation of privacy and anonymity on DNMs. Because
this shared repository of knowledgeon DNMs has not been the focus of studies, this
article explores if and how knowledge is shared and managed in this virtual environment.
To accomplish this research objective, DNMs are examined through the lens of busi-
ness theories namely, knowledge management theories. Because criminal organizations
and their operations have often been likened to organizations in the legal economy
(Maras, 2017), we argue that the use of theoretical frameworks originating from the busi-
ness literature is a good f‌it for DNM research. Thus far, knowledge creation, an essential
element of knowledge management (Dul, Ceylan, and Jaspers, 2011), has not been pre-
viously identif‌ied and studied on DNMs. In our analysis, we focus on formal and informal
paths to knowledge creation. The formal path involves knowledge created within the
criminal organization and maintained by it. The informal path involves knowledge
166 European Journal of Criminology 21(2)

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