Silk Road 2.0 Just Around the Corner

The Silk Road has closed. Visitors armed with Tor and a desire to purchase illicit substances logged on to the infamous site in the first week of October only to be greeted with an FBI message: “This hidden site has been seized.” Ross Ulbricht has been arrested, under suspicion that he was in charge of the illicit site and had reportedly hired hit men using the service. The news is accompanied by stern warnings from law enforcement officials that the Silk Road and other sites accessible through the “deep web” aren’t as anonymous as users would like to believe. Although there are only allegations at present, it appears that Ulbricht did control the site, but what isn’t clear is how long the current situation (with no large-scale online marketplace for illicit drugs) will continue. Is this just another chapter in the whack-a-mole-like history of the futile war on drugs?

The Silk Road

The sites you encounter through searches on sites like Google represent an insignificant fraction of the Internet. Using an anonymous network like Tor (the Onion Router), users access the deep web and can browse some of the mass of sites that aren’t indexed by search engines. It’s in these dark recesses that things like snuff films and child porn circulate, but it’s also the home of what is often called the eBay of illicit drugs. The Silk Road works in exactly that way: independent sellers post items for sale, and users make purchases and leave feedback on the reliability of the dealer. This means that users can purchase all manner of illicit substances from the comfort of their own homes and have them shipped to them.

All purchases that took place on the Silk Road used the anonymous online currency BitCoin. This makes it more difficult for law enforcement to trace who was involved with a certain transaction and therefore prosecute those who break the law. In short, the use of BitCoin is likely what enabled the Silk Road to operate for so long without recriminations.

The Shutdown

It was only a matter of time before the hands of the law closed around the neck of the illicit marketplace. Ross Ulbricht went by the online handle “Dread Pirate Roberts,” and was reportedly a little sloppy about how much he associated himself with the website. He apparently left his personal email address attached to a request for developers for the site and had a package containing nine pieces of counterfeit identification intercepted by Customs.

According to the FBI, the website generated around $1.2 billion in sales between February 2011 and July 2013—a statistic that reveals the sheer scale of the illicit activity. This also makes it clear why a shutdown of the site was inevitable. Reports state that as part of the site shutdown, the FBI seized around $4 million worth of BitCoin, and there have also been other arrests of individuals associated with the site around the world.

Ross Ulbricht, the Mastermind?

The 29-year-old San Francisco resident who is accused of masterminding the site has been interviewed by a local magazine, but refused to comment on either his guilt or innocence, only denying use of the online handle Dread Pirate Roberts. The story doesn’t paint a picture of a criminal mastermind; instead Ulbricht appears normal, with Google-searches for his name prior to the arrest more likely to turn up some of the work he did in physics during his time at the University of Texas. He comments that this is the first time he’s been arrested, and now spends most of his time in his cell, alone.

The string of evidence leading to his arrest obviously adds weight to the idea that he was indeed the mastermind, but his understated character appears to have taken the interviewer and the press by surprise. However, the fact that he also allegedly hired a hit man to kill somebody who threatened to release information on the site’s users adds a potential dark undercurrent to his persona. Since there are only allegations to date, the world will have to wait to see if the court decides that Ulbricht is guilty.

The New Silk Road

It was only a matter of time, but out of the ashes of the old Silk Road, a notable next generation version is on the cusp of going live, with many potential contenders for the position. The only thing that appears inevitable is that the Silk Road is not dead. Like designer drugs that merely resurface with an edited chemical structure, another website (with improved anonymity software) is set to hit the deep web. The sad conclusion is that no matter how hard law enforcement tries, this type of thing will always be available on the Internet. TechCrunch writer John Biggs comments that, “I suspect that hackers, now emboldened, will produce many more SR-like sites than any government can police.”

Conclusion -- An Exercise in Futility?

Of course there are advantages to arresting the head of such a massive illicit marketplace, but there is also an unavoidable sense that it is all meaningless. On the street, one dealer is arrested and there are 10 more itching to take his or her place. On the Internet, the same thing happens with websites. The problem will always remain. Law enforcement can enjoy a brief period of respite, in which one of the largest drug marketplaces in the world is on hiatus, but they are still fighting the same hopeless war on drugs. The nearly-live status of Silk Road version 2.0 is a perfect example of why this approach will never be truly successful.

Posted on October 31st, 2013

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