This is going to inspire such a good movie some day.
You may have heard of Silk Road; it was pretty much a William Gibson cyberpunk concept come to life, a secret website - accessible only through Tor anonymizing software - where hard drugs, hacked passwords and other sorts of highly illegal material was sold in exchange for Bitcoins, the weird digital currency of choice for hackers and now, it seems, Eastern European villains. Silk Road was a booming venture, facilitating billions of dollars in sales and turning the shadowy world of crime into something as easily accessible as Amazon. Anybody could log in and make a transaction that would net them hash or acid or smack. Or ATM PINs or Netflix passwords or other personal information. The only things banned from trade on Silk Road were kiddie porn, murder services, credit card numbers and weapons of mass destruction.
Silk Road launched in 2011 and immediately made huge headlines, with Senator Chuck Schumer demanding the DEA do something about it. Behind the site was a shadowy figure who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts, a guy who espoused Libertarian ideals and a distrust for and distaste in the government. Today the identity of Dread Pirate Roberts has been revealed, and he’s under arrest. His name is Ross Ulbricht, and he’s a plain old white guy, a guy who could be working at any tech startup in Silicon Valley. A graduate of the University of Texas with a degree in Physics, his LinkedIn profile lists his interests as economics and virtual worlds.
Who is the guy who created the most successful and widest-reaching cyber black market yet? I’m sure more information will come out in the months ahead, but right now Ulbricht looks like an unlikely kingpin. His LinkedIn lists him as having once been the CEO of a non-profit, and has this paragraph in his profile:
I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.
Public YouTube video of Ulbricht has him talking about his belief that the drug war is a failed war, and that services like Silk Road allow people access to the drugs they will always want without having to go through the violent cartels and gangs that make drug trafficking so distasteful.
I get that, and I think it’s admirable. But just as Walter White started cooking meth to help his family and quickly found himself spiralling into greater and greater criminal activities, the FBI claims that Ulbricht also began spiraling out of control. According to their criminal complaint against Dread Pirate Roberts, Ulbricht broke his own terms of service at Silk Road and attempted to hire a hitman to off a rival.
Apparently one drug dealer on the site, known as FriendlyChemist, attempted to extort Sllk Road, having hacked a computer and having gained access to the real world information of many users. FriendlyChemist wanted half a million dollars, and Dread Pirate Roberts decided to take drastic action. According to the FBI Ulbricht got in touch with one of FriendlyChemist’s suppliers. His email:
“I would like to put a bounty on his head if it’s not too much trouble for you. What would be an adequate amount to motivate you to find him? Necessities like this do happen from time to time for a person in my position.”
What happened next is surreal: Ulbricht haggled with the hitman, telling him that the quoted $150,000-$300,000 was way too high, and that he had paid just $80,000 for a similar hit in the past. Apparently they reached a compromise, as the hitman emailed Ulbricht a picture of a victim next to a sheet on which was written numbers Dread Pirate Roberts randomy generated; that was Ulbricht’s way of acquiring proof of death. The victim was Canadian, but Canadian authorities claim no matching murder was ever reported.
Apparently it was simple sloppiness that tripped up Ulbricht. Some of the earliest forum posts advertising Silk Road were made with accounts registered to Ulbricht’s personal email. He also posted help requests on Tor forums, looking for assistance with lines of code identical to code in Silk Road. Again, he did it under his own name.
The Feds started using Silk Road to buy drugs back in November of 2011, ordering goods and testing them. The word on the web was that Silk Road drugs were way higher quality than the stuff you buy on the street, which gets stepped on along the way to stretch it out and make it go farther. Apparently Fed lab tests upheld that belief - the shit was pure.
Ulbricht has been charged with narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. The FBI seized about $3.8 million worth of BitCoins from Ulbricht, and have begun seizing more from Silk Road vendors. They apparently also have control of the site completely, including private messages, which could mean more - and bigger - busts down the road.
What led Ulbricht from being a Libertarian who wanted to take the violence out of one of our unstoppable vice trades to becoming a guy who nonchalantly haggles over the price of killing a man? I imagine it’s a lot like the trajectory that took Walter White to Heisenberg (I love that both the real crook and the fictional one have nerdy-ass crime names), and it involves greed and fear and ego.
We’ll find out in the eventual movie; maybe David Fincher can direct it as the dark side of The Social Network.