When you hear the name “Silk Road” what do you think of? Often talked about as the Wild West of the Internet and eBay “with added Vice”, it’s safe to say that Silk Road meant different things to different people. The illicit marketplace – founded back in February 2011 – made an underground cult hero out of founder Ross Ulbricht. Going by his codename Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to the popular character in the film The Princess Bride, Ulbricht operated a website that would be whispered about the world over.
In just three years Silk Road would turn Ulbricht from a low-level research assistant into a millionaire, before the FBI would beat him at his own game. Bringing down two federal agents in the process on corruption charges, Silk Road would certainly change the world – both for the better and for the worse.
Given that Silk Road has now met its final resting place, enough time has passed for us to look back at the illicit marketplace. What exactly was Silk Road? How did it come to be? What helped it make headlines? And, lastly, what brought this famous deep web exchange to its knees?
Ross Ulbricht’s humble beginnings
The story of Silk Road is so huge that they even made a movie out of it, so we would certainly recommend that you check out the award-winning Deep Web should you have the time. The name of this 2015 documentary is quite fitting, as that’s where the Silk Road story begins. The deep web (or dark web) is the underbelly of the Internet that you don’t see. Off the grid in many ways – in the sense that the deep web isn’t indexed – it allows sites to operate outside of standard boundaries. Because of this, for anyone to access the deep web, it requires a few tricks and the use of an anonymous web browser like Tor – which, oddly enough, is a US Navy creation.
The deep web is where Silk Road would find a home, with its popularity actually lending legitimacy to the deep web and its capabilities. As we mentioned, Ross Ulbricht is the name behind Silk Road. A masters graduate from Pennsylvania State University, he identified himself as a fan of once US presidential candidate and political figure Ron Paul. Although, he was openly skeptical of America’s drug war, which explains a lot given what was ahead.
Following his graduation from Pennsylvania State University, Ulbricht would take on a research assistant position. But, it wouldn’t be long before he would branch out on his own via a series of start-ups – of which most failed. All would change we he made his way to Silicon Valley, as his next start-up would send tremors around the world.
The emergence of Silk Road
As you’re probably aware, the name Silk Road comes from the famous trade route that interlinked East Asia and Europe. Ulbricht’s idea was that he was effectively constructing a website that carried a similar premise – as he was attempting to bring the world together through an unrestricted digital marketplace. If you were to believe Ulbricht’s LinkedIn page, he wanted to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression among mankind.”
The original intentions behind Silk Road were arguably pretty honest, as it was designed to be a modern-day interpretation of the free market that restricted product sales to supposed “victimless crimes.” Operating outside of government jurisdiction, the site was supposed to embody Ulbricht’s ideology through a similar setup to mainstream websites such as eBay. Members would be able to buy items with minimal fuss and outside of watching eyes. The idea might have seemed innocent enough, but it wouldn’t be long before it became a widespread tool of crime.
Criminals began to use Silk Road as a backdoor to distribute goods. As continued criminal activity was linked to Silk Road, it became an unstoppable beast in many ways. More and more criminals flocked to it, as it offered a much greater level of anonymity than other websites of its kind – with the use of Bitcoin only increasing this level of anonymity further.
The drug trade becomes digital
Based upon Ulbricht’s victimless crime theory, Silk Road banned listings linked to child pornography, WMDs, credit card theft, and assassinations. But, this left so much unaccounted for, with reports in 2013 revealing that around 70% of products for sale on Silk Road were drugs. It wouldn’t be long after this when Ulbricht’s standards would begin to slip. Policies regarding guns and assault weapons were loosened – claiming firmer firearm regulations as the reason why. This would set a trend, as Silk Road would eventually become open season when it came to all forms of criminal activity.
The big advantage that Silk Road had over its competition – yes, sites like this do have competition – was that it was considered trustworthy. It’s pretty laughable when you think about it, that measures such as quality, price, and reliability are used on a site that’s based around products and proceeds of crime. Another reason for Silk Road’s near runaway success was the fact that Ulbricht remained committed to the platform he created – routinely becoming part of the forum chat as a result. Believing in the community concept, users believed that being part of Silk Road was akin to being part of something much bigger. However, Ulbricht’s seemingly kind nature could largely be explained through the sheer degree of profit he was making – $28 million to be precise, before federal agents caught up with him.
During its lifespan, more than $1 billion would exchange hands, which shows the sheer scale of the operation. Given that’s the case, authorities were bound to come calling. What’s surprising is that US police officials have admitted that they had been aware of Silk Road for months post-launch. It had even been publicly discussed by multiple US senators. However, the problems regarding a case against Silk Road came about through a lack of knowledge on Ulbricht’s identity. As there was a clear struggle for the DEA to not only closed the domain, to the point where they actually went down the route to breach the network in an attempt to track down its administrators and suppliers. While none of these individuals would know Ulbricht’s real name directly – he kept it miraculously well hidden – through years of work the FBI was able to piece together the puzzle to figure out exactly who he was.
Ulbricht’s ability to escape the FBI has become the stuff of legend, but he clearly couldn’t run forever. After infiltrating Silk Road’s inner circle, Ulbricht was effectively sold out by those around him. The FBI would make the final link through a basic Google search. As a prior alias of Ulbricht was revealed, with this alias promoting Silk Road on a drug forum, from there the same account was traced to a popular Bitcoin forum, where his personal email address was uncovered.
With enough evidence now collected to charge Ulbricht, it was a case of game over for the Pennsylvania State University. He was eventually caught in the act, as when his home address was raided, he was active on Silk Road at the time unknowingly talking to an undercover FBI agent. What was recovered during the raid was startling. Across several USB drives, he had collect Bitcoin that equaled tens of millions in value. Funnily enough, Ulbricht was also journaling his Silk Road activity, so he actually incriminated himself. It wouldn’t be long after Ulbricht’s arrest – minutes in fact – that Silk Road was shut down, as the domain was seized.
An ever-growing rap sheet
When Ulbricht’s day in court came, his rap sheet was something that painted him as a career criminal. On top of various drugs charges, six counts of murder were also listed. As it turns out, Ulbricht might have started as a man with good intentions, but eventually he was reduced to sheer violence and other drug-trade clichés to maintain his position.
After a lengthy case, the decision was made to drop the attempted murder charges against Ulbricht. This was only temporary relief for the Silk Road operator however, as his convictions in the form of drug trafficking, computer hacking, and money laundering were of such a severity that he was given a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Such a charge is usually reserved for those that are spared a spot-on Death Row, which speaks volumes about how his crimes were viewed.
Ulbricht would appeal the sentence on the grounds that the FBI searches of Silk Road were “unconstitutional”, but his challenge would falter. The judge would reinforce the life without parole sentence, effectively meaning that Ulbricht is now under a “life means life” conviction.
The legacy of Silk Road
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – Silk Road changed the world. Since it closed its doors, several imitators have cropped up, all trying to relaunch Silk Road whether under the same name or another name. For a brief period, there was even a site called Silk Road 2.0, but given FBI attention and impending threats, it didn’t survive any longer than a year. Plus, many similar sites have become breeding grounds for high-profile scams, which has hampered the chances of a second Silk Road-esque site ever gaining notoriety.
Ulbricht’s life is now set to be spent behind bars – in spite of his family’s efforts to free him. But, while Ulbricht might not ever see the light of day again, the legacy of Silk Road lives on. What remains to be seen is that during the fallout of Silk Road, whether another similar site can rise again within the domain of the deep web.