Despite a federal government shutdown, the FBI and other authorities today arrested the alleged owner/operator of the online underground marketplace Silk Road in San Francisco. Known for its burgeoning trade in illegal substances, Silk Road was a hidden website accessible only through the encrypted Tor network browser, providing anonymity for buyers and sellers.
Ross William Ulbricht, 29, went by the nickname “Dread Pirate Roberts” (from The Princess Bride) and may have been tracked down thanks to his own loose lips. According to The Guardian, agents traced discussions from drug forums and blogs to a Gmail address that was registered to Ulbricht. From there, they began surveillance on Ulbricht in San Francisco, slowly piecing together enough evidence to make an arrest.
Agents have also seized the contents of Silk Road’s servers, which may include the personal details of buyers and sellers on Silk Road. The servers also contained Ulbricht’s stash of 26,000 Bitcoins, which are an anonymous, stateless currency Silk Road users trade so their transactions leave no paper trail. At current exchange rates, these Bitcoins equal about $3.6 million. Agents allege since its founding in 2011, Silk Road may have processed 9.5 million Bitcoin ($1.2 billion) in transactions.
In addition to what its advocates called a safer method of transactions for better-quality drugs, Silk Road also traded in legal drugs, hacking tools and pirated software. Agents called Silk Road “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet today,” and it “sought to make conducting illegal transactions on the Internet as easy and frictionless as shopping online.”
In the 39-page indictment, FBI Special Agent Christopher Tarbell also alleges that Ulbricht planned to use violence to maintain the anonymity of the Silk Road. One affidavit claims that in March Ulbricht "solicited a Silk Road user to execute a murder-for-hire of another Silk Road user who was threatening to release the identities of thousands of users of the site,” yet the indictment includes no charges for murder or conspiracy to commit murder.
If the online drug dealing world is anything like the real one (and we suspect it is), shutting down the biggest “cartel” and arresting the top “drug lord” just means the FBI has created a job opening and business opportunity for the next high-tech entrepreneur to pave a better Silk Road.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of "The Russ Belville Show."