History’s Silk Road is not the only one of its kind. Not the only one of its name, to be precise. On the verge of 2011, a marketplace which sold wares from a very wide spectrum was founded and launched: The Silk Road Market. The wares all had a common denominator – hard to get and/or illegal. This market place thrived until last year when authorities shut it down and incarcerated its creator and operator “Dread Pirate Roberts”, named after a fictional character from The Princess Bride. In the first part of our new series “Famous Digital World Cases”, we will shed a bit of light on how the whole story unfolded.
The process of identifying and consequently catching pirate Roberts was long and difficult and to this day, it is not beyond the benefit of a doubt, that Ross Ulbricht – the man standing behind pirate Robert’s nickname, is not the real founder and sole proprietor of the Silk Road Market. We don’t want to act as judges here, of course, let’s simply look at the facts and start on the place where the market place itself started – the Dark Web. Websites belonging to the Dark Web are not only not indexed, you also need to take special steps to even gain access to them. This can include a specific proxy server or specific browser, in some cases certain login credentials. Without these, you can not gain access to the Dark Web.
The Dark Web has an bad reputation because of some of its content, many people nevertheless use it for the sole purpose of protecting themselves and their privacy, their documents and preventing others from intercepting messages and files being send over the internet – all things that are virtually non-existent on the “common” internet nowadays.
This is the place where the Silk Road Market launched, a place where people could buy and sell drugs, precursors and other substances and items, that don’t typically belong to the “over-the-counter” variety. Transactions were made in the digital currency bitcoin, which virtual untraceability combined with the inherent functions of both the TOR browser and the Dark Web itself made the shopping for illegal drugs or medicine on Silk Road as easy as the shopping for anything else on Amazon.
In 2013, the FBI managed to get their hands on the true IP address of the Silk Road server. According to the official version, they’ve gained it through a faulty CAPTCHA function on Silk Road’s website itself but experts on digital security believe, that the acquisition of this very important piece of evidence (that culminated into an arrest order) was sketchy and not totally with agreement with the law – a fact that exploded into a lot of controversy regarding the case itself as well as the court proceedings.
Ulbricht’s hearing began on the 13th of January 2015. Right from the start, Ulbricht claimed he’d created the Silk Road Market but had transferred the control of it to others immediately after. His Lawyers named Mark Karpelès, a friend of Ulbricht, that supposedly wanted Ulbricht to take the fall.
In the second week of the court hearings, the prosecutors presented documents and chat logs found on Ulbricht’s computer, that was ceased when he got arrested. These, unfortunately, disproved his words about transferring control over Silk Road to another person. Ulbricht’s attorney insisted that these documents were planted on Ulbricht’s computer with the purpose to discredit him.
On April the 2nd, Ulbricht was found guilty on a total of 7 charges, including the creation and maintenance of a criminal enterprise, drug trafficking, money laundering and hacking. In the same year, writer and director Alex Winter shot the documentary Deep Web which, among other topics, showed a detailed story about the Silk Road Market and Ulbricht’s arrest and conviction. The creators wanted to inform people about the nefarious practices of the FBI and other government agencies on which we depend upon for our security, but also about Ulbricht himself and his vision – to “give people a free choice”.
The Silk Road has since made its appearance several times on the Dark Web under a similar or different name, however, as the authorities have shown to be able to crack the security and anonymity of the original Silk Road Market, these alternative digital black markets have not gained as much popularity as their predecessor. In the future, there will surely be a lot of supporters for such markets as well as naysayers, but as long as the internet itself will exist, Dread Pirate Robert’s legacy will as well. And maybe even someone willing to take on his mantle and carry this legacy forward.