AI can help find illegal opioid sellers online. And wildlife traffickers. And counterfeits.

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Tablets suspected by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be fentanyl. Don Emmert/Getty Images

The government is investing in an AI-based tool that could help catch illegal opioid sales on the internet. But the same approach could find lots of other illicit transactions.

An estimated 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses each day in the United States, and 2 million people had an opioid use disorder in 2018. This public health crisis has left officials scrambling for ways to cut down on illegal sales of these controlled substances, including online sales.

Now the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, is investing in an artificial intelligence-based tool to track how “digital drug dealers” and illegal internet pharmacies market and sell opioids (though online transactions are likely not a large share of overall illegal sales).

New AI-based approaches to clamping down on illegal opioid sales demonstrate how publicly available social media and internet data — even the stuff you post — can be used to find illegal transactions initiated online. It could also be used to track just about anything else, too: The researcher commissioned by NIDA to build this tool, UC San Diego professor Timothy Mackey, told Recode the same approach could be used to find online transactions associated with illegal wildlife traffickers, vaping products, counterfeit luxury products, and gun sales.

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