As a fan of police dramas and novels from the likes of Patricia Cornwell, when I discovered a true crime podcast I was immediately interested and looking forward to having a listen. As you would expect, most of the episodes involve murder cases or suspicious deaths. However, nestled amongst these I found a three-part episode focusing on a subject slightly more familiar to me: Silk Road.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert on Silk Road by any stretch but what I do have knowledge of are some of the themes that run throughout this case, for example cybercrime and bitcoin, and while I was aware of some of the aspects of the Silk Road case, this podcast fascinated me and I was gripped from beginning to end.
As a result, I have decided to share what I consider to be the top 5 most interesting facts regarding Silk Road and its creator Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, that I was previously unaware of. (For more information on the name ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and why Ulbricht may have come to adopt the moniker, do visit one of our previous ICT blogs: ‘What’s in a name’.)
5. Ross Ulbricht held libertarian views and was part of his university’s ‘College Libertarians’ group.
Libertarianism is defined as ‘a political philosophy that takes individual liberty to be the primary political value’ and people who follow it believe in political freedom and autonomy and share a skepticism of authority and state power. Libertarians don’t believe that people can do whatever they want and no one else can say anything; it’s more that persons are free to pursue their own lives as long as they respect the equal rights of others.
It appears these views may have played a part in Ulbricht’s decision to create Silk Road. As an example, according to court documents, he wrote motivational posts to his employees about ‘the mission of Silk Road’ and one such post declares ‘It's not the government's right to tell the people what they can and cannot put in their bodies.’
4. In the almost 3 years that it was operating, Silk Road facilitated $1.2 billion worth of trades.
This was equivalent at the time to 9,519,664 bitcoins. Of this, Ulbricht probably earned around $79.8 million in commissions as the only administrator of the site.
3. Ross Ulbricht was self-taught in coding.
He gained experience while helping a friend launch his online used-book selling business and this is where he became interested in bitcoin and establishing an anonymous website where people could buy anything and not have it traced back to them.
Whilst it is noteworthy that a self-taught coder created Silk Road, this did unfortunately mean that Ulbricht had to request web development help from a friend who was a computer engineer, who then testified against him at his trial. It also meant that early on, Silk Road had problems with security and it was a target for hackers. It would sometimes go down for days at a time and Ulbricht was also routinely blackmailed and forced to pay thousands of dollars to cybercriminals to stop them from attacking the site or exposing serious vulnerabilities.
2. Ulbricht was arrested and his laptop was taken after he was distracted in a library whilst using public Wi-Fi.
After the police had tracked him down and put him under surveillance, Ulbricht was followed to Glen Park Library. Here, they watched him log on as Dread Pirate Roberts, navigate into the marketplace, then the forum, then the elite admin chat where their undercover officer that had gained his trust was waiting to say hello.
The trouble that the police had was, that if they went in all guns blazing Ulbricht could easily hit a button which activated a ‘kill switch’ to encrypt or erase his hard drive; it turned out Ulbricht did have a kill switch set up so it was lucky that they didn’t take the heavy-handed approach.
Instead, they set up a fake argument between two undercover FBI agents behind where Ulbricht was sitting. When he got distracted by this argument and turned around, another FBI agent sat at the same table snatched his laptop away from him. Ulbricht was then handcuffed while his laptop was inspected.
Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole in May 2015. At the end of June this year, the Supreme Court in the US announced that it will not reconsider this and his life sentence will stand.
While this does make for a gripping story, what I actually found the most interesting is that a man who was running a highly illegal website often called ‘the eBay of drugs’ opted to use public Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi poses many security risks and data sent through it can be easily intercepted, so with the amount of incriminating information Ulbricht had on his laptop, you wouldn’t think he’d be using public Wi-Fi.
1. Ross William Ulbricht was essentially found using a Google search
Although the authorities were aware of Silk Road, the secrecy and anonymity of the dark web made tracking down the person behind it very difficult. That is, until IRS special agent Gary Alford reasoned that when Silk Road was first launched, someone would have to have ‘advertised’ it and how to find it.
Therefore, he Googled ‘silk road.onion’ and using Google’s advanced settings, he was able to look for content posted between certain dates. This led Alford to find a post on a website called ‘bitcointalk.org’ which had quoted a since deleted message dated January 2011 and written by a user called ‘Altoid’.
In this original post, Altoid had asked ‘Has anyone seen the Silk Road yet?’ with a description of what Silk Road was and a link to a web page that explained how to access it. As this was posted just prior to its launch in February 2011, this post had to come from someone who was involved in Silk Road.
Alford was then able to find Altoid’s profile and his other posts on the website. In one of these posts, dated October 2011, Altoid posted a job listing for a ‘lead developer in a bitcoin startup company’. The message also stated, ‘If interested, please send your answers to the following questions to rossulbricht at gmail dot com’. And just like that, Alford had found his man.
Even today, the Silk Road story continues. For example, in mid-June this year, it was announced that the alleged ‘real mentor’, adviser, and right-hand man to Ross Ulbricht, Roger Clark aka Variety Jones, was being extradited to the US from Thailand on charges relating to Silk Road. Therefore I’m sure more interesting details will be revealed in the future.
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