The controversial online drug marketplace Silk Road, located in the shady virtual alleyways of the TOR-accessible DarkNet, has reached soaring heights of notoriety in the past year, and was recently described by FBI special agent Christopher Tarbell as the “most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today.” Guided by a seller rating system similar to eBay’s, Silk Road users could anonymously purchase illegal substances from weed and scripts to crack, meth, and heroin (and everything in between) using Bitcoin, which would then be shipped to their doorsteps via the withered, desperate hands of the U.S. postal service. Sounds convenient enough.
Forbes recently published a profile piece on Silk Road’s alleged owner (with the Princess-Bride-inspired handle “Dread Pirate Roberts”, in true lulzy fashion), estimating that the site was grossing $1.2 million a month in the first half of 2012, the kind of numbers that made us wonder exactly how long this supposed anonymity could last. Alas, as of today, Silk Road shut down, with nothing left but a très Powerpoint-chic seizure notice posted by the FBI and thousands of people who are shit out of Bitcoin–the prosecution report states that Silk Road traded the equivalent of $1.2 billion USD of the digital currency, in total.
Dread Pirate Roberts, alleged to be 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht, has been taken into custody as well, and is not only facing charges of narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering conspiracy but also, in a dire and meta twist, of soliciting a contract kill via Silk Road with the purpose of permanently silencing a user who was threatening to expose countless others. A copy of the entire complaint filed against Ulrich in the southern district of New York can be found here.
Now that the tip of this shadowy iceberg has seen the sun, it is sure to melt very quickly. Users who had Bitcoin “wallets” on Silk Road no longer have access after the seizure, and while other “anonymous” online drug markets do still exist and (potentially scammy) Silk Road mirrors are sure to pop up, this is a huge reminder that no one’s privacy online is untouchable. The growth of Silk Road certainly played a part in getting Dread Pirate Roberts in trouble; the FBI intercepted fake ID’s he had purchased in order to acquire more server space, after learning his identity through the Gmail connected to a handle he had previously used to post comments on WordPress.
The moral of this nonfiction fable? There is real risk to conducting illegal transactions online, even in a supposedly anonymous environment (you’re still getting shit shipped to your house, dude). I was always incredulous of the fact that anyone would opt to have sometimes-fragrant or harshly illegal drugs mailed to them, as it relies upon the Russian Roulette approach to interception (read: disaster) and, at best, equates to living in a constant state of paranoia that the mailman is a Fed. It will be interesting to see whether other arrests are made possible by this seizure, of other administrators or even users, and how the public reacts to the trial in a cultural environment that is growing hostile towards both the war on drugs and the decimation of individual privacy.