The Silk Road is no more. For those unfamiliar with the infamous online drug and illegal services marketplace, it was part of the hidden Internet, accessible only through Tor, which we tinkered with last month. Now, the site has been taken down, and its alleged founder, Ross Ulbrict, has been indicted on drug conspiracy, hacking, and murder for hire charges.
With the reveal of Dread Pirate Roberts (Ulbrict's online moniker), this begs the ever-present question: is there ever actual anonymity on the Internet, even with the use of Tor and Bitcoins?
The Silk Road: Seized by the Feds
For those unfamiliar with The Silk Road, it was a marketplace for drugs and other illegal items brought to the attention of the wider world years ago by a Kotaku expose. The site allowed sellers to peddle their wares for bitcoins, and as we'll see in the indictment, the drugs were real (and high quality).
Today, those peddlers will have to find a new marketplace, as Homeland Security and the FBI have seized the Silk Road and shut down the site as part of their investigation into the site and its founder.
The indictment goes into great detail about the goods and services that were available on the site, including every drug imaginable, hacking and hitman services, fake and stolen identification, and firearms and ammunition.
The Defendant: Physicist Ross Ulbricht
His LinkedIn profile is certainly bland. After earning a bachelor's degree in Physics from the University of Texas at Dallas, Ulbrict turned to Pennsylvania State University for graduate studies, and a research position, in Materials Science and Engineering. Much of his work involved crystalline structures.
How does a Physicist and Materials Science student turn into an online drug store entrepreneur? His LinkedIn profile contains some anti-government babbling and mentions an "economic simulation" as part of his shifting goals. Was that "simulation" the infamous Silk Road?
The Crimes: Murder for Hire, Drug Conspiracy, Money Laundering
The lengthy indictment reads like the plot of now-ended, but never forgotten television drama Breaking Bad. It accuses Ulbricht of conspiring to distribute drugs, laundering his commissions from the sales, and hiring someone to murder a person who threatened to release the identities of many of the site's affiliates. There may have also been some computer hacking involved.
Over the site's two-and-a-half year run, it allegedly processed over 9.5 million bitcoins in revenue and took in 600,000 bitcoins in commissions. In today's dollar equivalents, that's $1.2 billion in sales and $80 million in commissions.
The alleged conspiracy included setting up and maintaining the marketplace, as well as the site's guides to avoiding detection, wiping any trace of the site from one's computer, and safe shipping practices.
As for the murder for hire allegation, according to the indictment, a user named "FriendlyChemist" hacked another vendor's account and threatened Ulbrict with release of the names of thousands of vendors and customers. Ulbrict asked another user to execute FriendlyChemist and transferred the equivalent of $150,000 in bitcoins to that user's account. According to Canadian police, the real-life person behind FriendlyChemist is alive and well.
We'll have more on this case later this week, including how Ubricht was caught, and a hypothetical discussion of how one might remain truly anonymous in the future.
- Can You Really Remain Anonymous on the Internet? (FindLaw's Technologist Blog)
- Risky Business: More Law Firms Taking Bitcoin (FindLaw's Strategist Blog)
- Tor Browser Attacked, Users Should Update Software Immediately (Electronic Frontier Foundation)