In the first three parts of this series we talked about the Darkweb, its origins and dipped into the basics of how the technology behind it works.
We also mentioned the Darkwebs most infamous website, the arrest of its founder Ross Ulbricht and the fact that this high-profile case brought the Darkweb out of the shadows of the internet and thrust it into mainstream awareness.
In this article I’m going to fill you in on what happened, who Ross Ulbricht allegedly was, and ask some tough questions about how these types of technology change things in various areas of our lives.
The Origins of The Silk Road
The Silk Road was the mac daddy website of the Darkweb as far as black markets go.
Accessible only through Tor and initially charging a set fee for a user account, users of this website could buy and sell absolutely anything for Bitcoin, from fake identities to heavy-duty narcotics. It was said that over $1 billion USD was traded on this exchange alone between 2011, when it was launched, and 2013, when it was shut down by the FBI. That’s explosive growth by anybody’s standards!
Silk road administrators made their money by taking a set % of all sales, and when the FBI seized the website and arrested its alleged founder, they found over $3.6 million worth of Bitcoin on his computer, although records showed that at one time there had been over $87 million worth of Bitcoin total.
The Silk Road was named after the ancient trade route between Europe and the East travelled upon by pioneers like Marco Polo and others. As the website grew and required administration a central character made an appearance known as “Dread Pirate Roberts”, who claimed to have created, built and run the website from its inception.
The FBI Takedown of The Silk Road
Underground hackers the world over like to think they are a step ahead of everyone else in understanding and manipulating tech, but it is hard to stay ahead of a dedicated team with he vast resources of the government who have the sole aim of bringing you down and who are assigned to the task 24-7.
So on October 2nd 2013 Ross William Ulbricht was arrested at a public library in San Francisco, accused of being Dread Pirate Roberts. He was logged in to the Dread Pirate Roberts account. He was indicted on charges of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and the attempted murder of six people, although the latter charges were dropped before the trial began.
Although his defense team claimed he was set up by the real “Dread Pirate Rooberts” as the fall guy and that there were in fact multiple users who went under this handle, the judge ruled against him and convicted him of seven offences, sentencing him to two terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and fining him $183 million.
“You wanted this to be your legacy” she said in a closing statement “and it is”. Death threats, the leaking of her personal information including her address and photographs of the judge went live on the Darkweb, but she remained steadfast and doled out the maximum punishment.
Understanding the Questions & Consequences
The Silkroad Case and conviction of Ross Ulbricht is interesting because it raises many questions about technology, privacy and the how the internet has changed things.
While the jury convicted Mr. Ulbricht based on the testimony of experts called forth by the prosecution, how is it possible for the average layman to even understand the mind-boggling cryptography of Bitcoin and the advanced technology behind Tor, let alone reach a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt?
Do we need to review the legal system in cases like these and appoint specialist juries with the ability to understand what is going on?
Do we need to amend laws to deal with these types of cases so that defendants have a chance to prove they have been set up, like Mr. Ulbricht claims he was?
How can we convict one man for a crime when it is clearly known that there were at least four people logging in under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” on a 24-7 basis? How can we tell which crimes he is guilty of and which crimes may have been the doing of someone else?
How can law enforcement convict someone of crimes which he committed in North Korea (technically) while sitting in his living room in New York?
Does an individual have a right to privacy for example by denying federal agents access to their computer unless they can show probable cause?
What happens if a hacker logs into your account and uses your computer to conduct illegal activity? How can you protect yourself?
These are profound but important questions which we need to come to grips with.
Summary & Final Thoughts
Love it or hate it, the Darkweb and websites like Silkroad are here to stay and are growing stronger and bigger by the day. They are now de-centralizing so that it will be basically impossible for law enforcement to bust them effectively in the future. Just as Napster evolved into Bit Torrent, and so sites like Silk Road are evolving into peer-to-peer networks with no central server, too.
These questions will not simply disappear and go away. We as a society have to face them, work them out and come up with answers. Technology has changed everything and now everything must change to meet it on its own ground.
The life of Ross Ulbricht, a thrity year old libertarian idealist from Texas who loved his family and believed in freedom, yet who clearly crossed legal lines with severe consequences, is over. He maintains his innocence and says that he relinquished control of the website early on and was later set up as the fall guy when the heat was on.
Nobody will ever know if he is telling the truth because there are only a small percentage of people on the planet with the ability to fully understand this technology and what really happened.
How do you know that on any given day a hacker is not taking over your IP address and using your computer to engage in less than wholesome activities for which you could potentially get into trouble and unless you understand how all of this works, would be unable to prove your innocence?
To me, that’s a terrifying thought and it needs to be addressed urgently, for all of our sakes.
So what is your opinion? What laws need to change to catch up with advances in technology? Should we appoint juries with advanced technical understanding in cases like these? How do you feel about Ross Ulbricht? Did he get what was coming to him or is it at least possible he was set up?
We’d love to hear from you on these issues. Feel free to leave a comment below.