Posted by: Marcus Beecher
April 15, 2015
On February 4, 2015, a jury in the Southern District of New York found Ross Ulbricht guilty for his creation of and involvement in the hidden website Silk Road. Ulbricht was convicted on seven counts ranging from narcotics distribution to criminal enterprise to computer hacking. He will be sentenced in May, and could – per the maximum statutory sentences on his charges – face life in prison.
What did he do? Well, according to a press release posted by the FBI’s New York Field Office, Silk Road “emerged as the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet” and it was created, owned, and operated by Ulbricht. The press release further indicates that Ulbricht specifically intended to operate Silk Road anonymously, and allow for all transactions on the website to be conducted anonymously as well. He attempted to do so by using Tor – “a special network of computers on the Internet, distributed around the world, designed to conceal the true IP addresses of the computers on the network” – and a payment system based on Bitcoin.
Tor is well known and well regarded as a way to protect the privacy of Internet users (see, for example, this article on Digital Trends). So how did law enforcement figure out that Ulbricht was the Silk Road mastermind? Essentially, it got lucky: somebody using the network made a mistake, which law enforcement noticed and exploited. For those interested in an in-depth explanation of what happened, check out this article on Forbes.
The Silk Road case stands as another warning to any criminals trying to find anonymity on the Web: law enforcement will (probably) find you. Sure, Silk Road was uncovered due to a mistake, but take another look at the previously linked FBI press release. Towards the end of the release, it indicates all the law enforcement agencies involved. They include the FBI, DEA, ICE, IRS, BATF, NYPD, Secret Service, Marshall’s Service, and others, along with foreign agencies from France and Iceland. Ulbricht had pretty much everybody after him, and his foes had millions and millions and millions of dollars in technical resources and manpower. It’s not unreasonable to assume that eventually, somehow or another, he was going to be caught. However, there are still plenty of illicit networks up, as this Wired article indicates. Will they eventually get caught as well? Who knows, but Silk Road shows they probably won’t be able to hide forever.
It will be extremely interesting to follow future cases like Silk Road, and learn more about the never ending back-and-forth between criminals and law enforcement within the realm of the Web.