Last week the FBI arrested the founder of the notorious Silk Road web site that traded in illegal drugs. It was a coup for law enforcement but one that will be short lived. Other sites will just step in and take its place.
Silk Road is dead. Long live Silk Road
Last week the FBI took down Silk Road, the underground web site that traded in heroin, cocaine, guns and other illegal things. The site had been set up on the deep web in 2011.
The guy who allegedly set it up and managed it, Ross Ulbricht, was apparently caught in a library by six FBI officers. They had traced him through an earlier forum posting in which he had left an email address.
It was a significant moment because Silk Road was essentially a drugs eBay turning over $22 million in annual sales using Bitcoin the virtual currency, though the FBI is claiming $1.2 billion in revenue. However, it’s certainly not the end of this type of web site.
New illegal marketplaces are rising
A rival to Silk Road, Sheep Marketplace, was set up not so long ago and there are a lot of similar sites such as People’s Drugstore and Drug Market where wares such as Afghan heroin, weapons, alcohol and cigarettes are offered .
These sites operate using the Tor network, which is essentially an anonymising network that lets users remain out of sight. Tor is used by plenty of legitimate organisations but because a user can mask their physical location it’s also a magnet for more nefarious activities such as Silk Road.
One of the interesting aspects of Silk Road’s demise, and also a characteristic of Internet usage more generally is the disconnect with reality that online activities create in many people. That is, people don’t have to engage face to face.
Silk Road – more than just an illegal online marketplace?
Ulbricht allegedly ordered the assassination of a Silk Road user because of a dispute over a Bitcoin payment. He didn’t realise he was dealing with FBI agents who tricked him into thinking that they had carried out the assassination. He then went on to order the killing of someone else.
But would have Ulbricht carried out the same action in real life if he had to deal in person with the contract killers? It’s a hard question to answer.
By operating one of the most notorious illegal web sites in the world, it’s probably hard not to develop a sense of aloofness and even arrogance. Certainly, among Ulbricht’s libertarian ramblings there is a naivety and even a sense of superiority - but a natural born killer?
The anonymity of the Internet makes it the perfect place for those so inclined to adopt false personas or hide what they are doing whether it’s criminal or predatory behaviour.
“If you want someone to get known as a child porn user, no problem” - Ulbricht
And it’s why deep web sites are so popular. It’s also why you get services such as the following in which a hacker offers ‘skills’ for sale. The text is original and reproduced as it appears on the deep web site:
“Ill do anything for money, im not a pussy :) if you want me to destroy some bussiness or a persons life, ill do it! Some examples: … Ruining your opponents, bussiness or private persons you dont like, i can ruin them financially and or get them arrested, whatever you like. If you want someone to get known as a child porn user, no problem.”
It’s chilling stuff. If you’re not convinced about the hacker’s skills he also offers a resume of technical knowledge and bolsters it with an explanation of how good his social engineering skills are too, such as the ability to manipulate people over the phone and bypass security checks.
Silk Road may have gone but the underground industry certainly hasn’t. And it’s worth reiterating that the FBI had to trace Ulbricht via a slip up on his part when he posted his email address on a forum.
It proves that activities on the deep web are by and large untraceable, which is one more reason we should all be practising good identity theft protection.