2 Oct 2013

End of the Silk Road?

The alleged owner of a giant online drugs marketplace has been arrested. The FBI picked up Ross William Ulbricht, known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Silk Road was one of a number of so-called “dark web” sites, only accessible using special software, which sold everything from Cannabis to heroin.


Last week Channel 4 News reported on the ease with which such sites operated, when we purchased MDMA and opium through Silk Road. The week before, a rival site, Atlantis, had closed due to “security concerns” – widely believed to be an indication that law enforcement had infiltrated the site.

If, as is being reported, Silk Road has been taken offline it is a massive victory for the FBI.

The site has been running since at least 2011, according to court documents, and after the closure of Atlantis its users were bullish about its ability to remain in business.

A Silk Road forum post under the name Dead Pirate Roberts read: “Silk Road is here to stay. I believe what we are doing will have rippling effects for generations to come and could be part of a monumental shift in how human beings organise and relate to one another.”

Yet the court documents paint a striking picture of a website engaged in widespread criminality, including the sale of hacking tools.

Ulbricht is charged with soliciting “a Silk Road user to execute a murder-for-hire of another Silk Road user, who had threatened to release the identities of thousands of users of the site.”

“Silk Road has emerged as the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today,” the FBI charge sheet said, “During its two and a half years in operation, Silk Road has been used by several thousand drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs.”

The site traded using Bitcoins, a virtual currency that’s very difficult to track.

The FBI believes it took more than 600,000 Bitcoins in commission. The currency’s valuation fluctuates massively, but at today’s rate that would be worth £45m.

The FBI claims Ulbricht slipped up even before the site was officially launched – posting a message on an internet forum under an alias, but then months later using the same alias to request help, giving away his email address.

Police then managed to track down Silk Road’s computer server, which gave them vital leads, including a series of internet addresses used to log in to the site.

The server also revealed that the site had just under a million registered users, and that 1.2 million transactions were made in a 17-day span.

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