Unraveling the Dark Web–Dread Pirate Roberts and Silk Road

They sell pure cocaine in Colombia or Peru. There are over six thousand drugs available to be distributed in any part of the world. It was in June 2011, just days after U.S. blogger Adrian Chen has unmasked the site, known as the “Silk Road.”

Silk Road is best known as the world’s best illegal e-commerce site, which is engaged in criminal affairs.  It was created in February of 2011, and the media around the world have dealt with it since then.  In the first six months its estimated turnover was around 1.2 million per month. And although the international police are well aware of how the illegal traffic on the web works, the revenue continued to increase as more and more user started using the site to buy drugs.

When in June 2011, the New York Senator Chuck Schumer asked the DEA, (Drug Enforcement Agency) to overshadow the domain, the creator and owner of Silk Road Dread Pirate Roberts, a nickname based on the novel The Princess Bride, has published this post:

“The die is cast, and now we’ll see what comes out. We will intensify efforts to counter their attacks and make the site more resistant as possible; this means that for a while ‘we will be less sensitive to messages that concern us. I am sure that this news will scare anyone, but we must win the battle, a new era will be born. Even if we lose, the genie is out of the bottle. They are fighting a losing war at the start.”

Booming Black Market Drug Website

According to the research by Nicolas Christin, a professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, home of the first faculty of computer science in the United States, users of Silk Road are also on the rise due to little fear of being caught. In his studies, which began in February and ended in July last year, Christin noted that apart from a hard core of about 60 profiles, sellers appear and disappear frequently, usually after just 15 days of their first deal.

The main controlled substance sold is marijuana, with 13.7 percent of the purchases, followed by the general category drugs by 9 percent, then prescription drugs, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines.

Why did the authorities fail to prevent Silk Road of sending drug in the world? The e-commerce is accessible via Tor, a system that protects users against traffic analysis with a network of onion routers (also called relay), run by volunteers, which allow anonymous outbound traffic and the creation of hidden services. Joining is very easy – just download the free software and it’s not illegal. In 2004 Tor was funded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit association that defends freedom of speech on the web.

Joining is simple and anonymous. The home page shows off the latest deals, with crude home-shot photos of the products, listed by category. Drugs are broken up into classes like “prescription” and “opioids”. All you need to do is place an order, send the delivery address to the seller (usually encrypted, so only the intended recipient can read it) and wait for your package to arrive. Silk Road in return takes a small percentage of the fee.

An Ultra-Secure System to Hide the Identity of Customers

While law enforcement authorities are eager to close Silk Road, informed sources say that it will be difficult to do, thanks to the elaborate measures taken by the site to protect the customers. For starters, you cannot find it through the search engine Google, or by simply typing silkroad.com. To preserve the anonymity of customers, the site is only accessible through Tor. Once you are on Tor, the web address of Silk Road is not very viral, something like ianxz6zefk72ulzz.onion.

While the powerful digital system means there is little chance that the authorities can identify dealers and customers on site, another potential obstacle for them is the currency used to perform the operations.

To avoid the obvious traces of credit cards, customers must make purchases with Bitcoin – a digital currency defended as a means of maintaining online privacy. Bitcoin is not completely anonymous, but it can be customized to hide the identity of a user. Even the FBI worries that Bitcoin’s complexity and lack of a central authority is preventing the authority to stop the site.

“We’re talking about the potential for a monumental shift in the power structure of the world,” Roberts writes. “The people now can control the flow and distribution of information and the flow of money. Sector by sector the State is being cut out of the equation and power is being returned to the individual.”

Dread Pirate Roberts, the Man behind Silk Road

Andy Greenberg’s very recent interview in Forbes is critical to understand the nature of Silk Road. Greenberg contacted Dread Pirate Roberts exclusively through the messaging system and forums of the website he owns and manages.

The site maintains a growing activity that suggests a turnover of more than respectable, but recent vulnerabilities and problems related to Tor or with the problems arising from the use of bitcoins have not allowed the authorities to turn it off, at least for far.

“Up until now I’ve done my best to keep Silk Road as low profile as possible … letting people discover [it] through word of mouth,” Roberts says. “At the same time, Silk Road has been around two and a half years. We’ve withstood a lot, and it’s not like our enemies are unaware any longer.”

Due to its popularity explosion, the whole structure of the Silk Road had to be redesigned to accommodate new customers and strengthen security, said Roberts.

With millions flowing into Silk Road, the vast majority of which Roberts says is reinvested back in its booming black market. The Dread Pirate brushes off questions about his wealth and lifestyle. He says he carefully limits his spending to keep a low profile but admitted in one forum post to partaking in a few first-world pleasures.

Roberts also has a political agenda. He not only feels an “encourager of drug dealers” but also radical libertarian revolutionary who tries to carve out a space digital anarchist.

“We can’t stay silent forever. We have an important message, and the time is ripe for the world to hear it,” says Roberts. “What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong.”

“Silk Road is a vehicle for that message,” he writes to Greenberg. “All else is secondary.”

Silk Road is far from the first platform for online sales of illegal drugs. Others are making inroads to online sales of illegal drugs including Black Market, The Armory, Reloaded and General Store. Organizations ensuring the enforcement lead a worldwide arduous battle against these sites, sometimes with some success.

The Future of the Network and the Control Dilemma

The existence and operation of Silk Road are worthy of a case study, and allow some interesting academic reflections around the network and control dilemma. The post-Snowden has been a case in the development of the network. For the first time, society is faced with the evidence that the network has become a permanent place of scrutiny, in which what we say or read is likely to be subject to surveillance.

Encryption, following the view taken by Julian Assange in Cypherpunks seems at the moment the only way to safeguard our privacy and our security. But with encryption, there is the dilemma of the control that perfectly portrays Silk Road – protecting values such as freedom of expression or privacy, and allows everything that is illegal.

About Saroj Kar

Saroj is a Staff Writer at SiliconANGLE covering DevOps, social, mobile and gaming news. If you have a story idea or tip, send it to @SiliconAngle on Twitter.