It has been four years since the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the infamous Silk Road. Advanced students in Liberal Studies at Regent’s University London share their thoughts on the founder’s declaration about his motivation in setting up the website, what may have contributed to the success of this illegitimate activity on the dark web, its impact, and any lessons learnt from it.
The Road Most Travelled
When someone mentioned Silk Road to me, my mind immediately went to the trade route that connected Asia to Europe, where buyers and sellers from different parts of the world
would converge together to sell goods and services. Similarly, the online version of the Silk Road was a way to connect users internationally.
The Silk Road was an online platform only accessible under a Tor Hidden Service that is the DarkWeb, a system that enables people to surf the web without revealing who and where they are. Buyers and sellers from around the world would assemble online to offer a wide variety of ‘victimless contraband’ as deemed by the creator1. It has a similar set-up to Ebay or Craigslist, if either company sold narcotics, hacking equipment and stolen credit cards.
Ross William Ulbricht, the 29 year old creator had launched the website at the start of 2011, under the pseudonym “The Dread Pirate Roberts”(DPR), only relying on word of mouth to spread its reach. It was estimated that 150,000 to a million transactions took place since the launch of the website to its ultimate closure in 20132.
In order to become a seller on the Silk Road, new sellers would have had to purchase a seat in an auction and the highest bidder would receive a slot allowing them to sell their products8. At first, the website only provided a few slots for sellers however, as demand increased with the closure of several other black websites, they were forced to open up more accounts with a fixed fee for each new seller. For every transaction Silk Road would take a commission of 10%, only scaling down for larger purchases3. The only currency that was accepted on the Silk Road was a type of cryptocurrency called Bitcoins; the appeal to it is in the fact that it operates outside of any central authority or bank, it is run by the users themselves4. When making a purchase, the product is usually shipped through the mail, direct from the seller to the buyer, keeping DPR completely clean. Sales are usually held in escrow until the buyers receive their package via the mail or, the much less common, face-to-face transactions5.
Due to this setup, Silk Road offered both buyers and sellers an alternative, less dangerous route to buying drugs. Instead of lurking in dark alleys they are able to work in the comfort of their own homes with little to no risk involved in the actual transaction. Prior to its closure in 2013, the success of the website reached an all-time high; the FBI estimated that Silk Road made over 1.7 billion dollars; In two years6.
“It’s all about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong. All else is secondary.”
However, according to an interview in FORBES’ magazine conducted with the previously anonymous creator of Silk Road, his main aim was freedom. Freedom to have a safe digital space beyond the grasp of taxation and governments. He wanted to create an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force. A free and safe world7.
Soon after this statement, a study came to light surrounding the success of Silk Road wherein the website has actually reduced drug- related violence throughout the US, which is exactly what Ulbricht’s lawyer pointed out. Additionally, due to the easily accessible nature of the website, more and more people are looking to buy products online. And because of the widely talked-about and quick success that is the Silk Road, many other similar drug-related platforms on the DarkWeb have emerged since. And that is the exact reason the judge gave to Ulbricht and his lawyer when he attempted to file for an appeal only a couple of months after his arrest in 2013, claiming that there are “very serious consequences to his actions” because of similar types of copycats. “The anonymity that cryptomarkets offer eliminate the need to violence in drug wars as buyers are allowed to review the sellers on the quality of their products.”
Despite the success of the takedown of Silk Road, and despite the FBI and Interpol’s best efforts, the capture of Ulbricht was ultimately his doing. During the development of Silk Road, Ulbricht, under the username of Altoid, posted on a forum with the caption “Anonymous Market Anyone?”, he then proceeded to advertise Silk Road. Because of this one post he made 3 years previously, the FBI was able to pinpoint that in fact, this was the first time Silk Road was ever mentioned on the DarkWeb. They tracked him down to a public library in San Francisco, where they proceeded to wait for him to pull out his laptop and type in his password in before they made their arrest.
When the laptop was thoroughly searched, they discovered that they could also add the attempted assassination of six people to the ever growing list of crimes Ulbricht had committed, among which are narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering. And in spite of his two college degrees and the booming success that was Silk Road, Ulbricht’s downfall was generally the greed of the people he was surrounded by. It was rumored that a couple of Silk Road employees were confidential informants for the FBI and that’s why Ulbricht took the initiative to hire the hitmen. However, he was manipulated and swindled out of a couple of thousands of dollars, by the hitmen themselves. Even the FBI was accused of stealing over 6.6 million dollars worth in Bitcoins.
Two years after Ulbricht’s rejected appeal, one of the FBI agents who was accused, Shaun Bridges admitted to stealing the money and transferring the Bitcoins to ‘a hardware wallet’. As a result of this Ulbricht’s family made the claim that Bridges and the other suspected FBI agent, Carl Mark had tainted the entire federal investigation on Silk Road. And even with numerous testimonies and evidence the rogue officers’ actions were kept out of the courts and the news until Ulbricht’s ultimate defeat9. Although the two FBI agents were discharged from the bureau and served a minimum sentence in prison, what laws and regulations are in place to stop other rogue agents from doing the same thing, as well as putting a stop to evidence tampering from within?
- 1 – (Greenberg, 2013)
- 2 – (BBC News, 2015)
- 3 – (Anderson and Farviar, 2013)
- 4 – (Bitcoin.org, 2009)
- 5 – (Greenberg, 2013)
- 6 – (Cox, 2015)
- 7 – (Greenberg, 2013)
- 8 – (Ferro, 2015)
- 9 – (Redman, 2017)
- Greenberg, A. (2013). Behind Booming Black Market Drug Website Silk Road. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/08/14/meet-the-dread-pirate-roberts-the-man-behind-booming-black-market-drug-website-silk-road/#ef1a96c8b735 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- BBC News. (2015). Silk Road drug site founder jailed. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-32941060 [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].
- Anderson, N. and Farviar, C. (2013). How the feds took down the Dread Pirate Roberts. [online] Ars Technica. Available at: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/10/how-the-feds-took-down-the-dread-pirate-roberts/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- Bitcoin.org. (2009). How does Bitcoin work?. [online] Available at: https://bitcoin.org/en/how-it-works [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- Greenberg, A. (2013). Founder Of Drug Site Silk Road Says Bitcoin Booms And Busts Won’t Kill His Black Market. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/04/16/founder-of-drug-site-silk-road-says-bitcoin-booms-and-busts-wont-kill-his-black-market/#5426ad4e6c42 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- Cox, J. (2015). This Researcher Is Tallying All the Arrests From Dark Web Markets. [online] Motherboard. Available at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/z4m77a/this-researcher-is-tallying-arrests-from-dark-web-markets [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- Greenberg, A. (2013). New Silk Road Drug Market Backed Up to ‘500 Locations In 17 Countries’ to Resist Another Takedown. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/12/06/new-silk-road-drug-market-backed-up-to-500-locations-in-17-countries-to-resist-another-takedown/#53bf47c61e03 [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].
- Ferro, S. (2015). Ross Ulbricht’s defense team argues Silk Road made buying and selling drugs safer. [online] Business Insider. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/did-silk-road-make-the-drug-industry-safer-2015-5?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].
- Redman, J. (2017). FBI Agent Admits to Stealing Silk Road Bitcoins Seized by U.S. Marshals – Bitcoin News. [online] Bitcoin News. Available at: https://news.bitcoin.com/rogue-silk-road-agent-admits-to-stealing-bitcoins-seized-by-u-s-marshals/ [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].
- Davis, J. and Leckart, S. (2016). The Untold Story of Silk Road, Part 1. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2015/04/silk-road-1/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- Gayathri, A. (2011). From marijuana to LSD, now illegal drugs delivered on your doorstep. [online] International Business Times. Available at: http://www.ibtimes.com/marijuana-lsd-now-illegal-drugs-delivered-your-doorstep-290021 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
- Martin, J. (2013). Lost on the Silk Road: Online drug distribution and the ‘crypto market’. [ebook] Australia: Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-terrorism, pp.351-367. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1748895813505234 [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].
- Miller, J. (2015). Silk Road agents charged with stealing seized Bitcoins. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-32124251 [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].
- Silkroaddrugs.org. (2017). Silk Road Drugs | How to find Silk Road and be safe. [online] Available at: https://silkroaddrugs.org [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].
- The Economist. (2015). Silk Road Successors. [online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/05/daily-chart-13 [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].
- Weiser, B. (2015). Man Behind Silk Road Website Is Convicted on All Counts. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/nyregion/man-behind-silk-road-website-is-convicted-on-all-counts.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].