The darknet rises: unravelling the web’s underbelly
This week the FBI arrested Ross William Ulbricht, whom it claims is notorious online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and shut a hub of alleged illegal activity. But many other sites could take its place online
Online thread: the Silk Road darknet site was closed on Wednesday
The moment when a team of FBI agents raided a San Francisco library and arrested an innocuous-looking 29-year-old man who had been working on his laptop might not sound like a key time in law-enforcement history, but with that arrest on Tuesday afternoon the so-called war on drugs took a decisive step into the 21st century.
The man was Ross William Ulbricht, a physics graduate and libertarian activist who had gained notoriety online as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Under that pseudonym, the FBI believes, he set up and ran an infamous online drug bazaar called the Silk Road, a sort of eBay for narcotics where users could order all manner of illegal substances and pay with the virtual crypto-currency, Bitcoin. The Silk Road was a huge business: the FBI claims it had facilitated 1.2 million transactions during its two and a half years in existence, with Ulbricht taking a commission on each sale, earning him $80 million in Bitcoins.
Profiting from drug-dealing was not his only alleged crime: according to claims in court documents, Ulbricht attempted to get hit men to kill two Silk Road associates.
The case of the Silk Road raises many questions: principally, how did Ulbricht apparently manage to act like the Jeff Bezos of the narcotics world? And in a world of increasingly pervasive online surveillance, how did customers even get to the Silk Road without being detected?
To answer those questions, one has to venture into the so-called darknet, the anonymous internet underground that can’t be accessed by normal web browsers or mined by search engines. It’s a hidden part of the internet that plays host to all sorts of people who value absolute privacy and anonymity, from political dissidents and investigative journalists on the one side to black-market traders, terrorists and child-pornographers on the other.
Ulbricht, the FBI claims, couldn’t go to any regular service provider, set up silkroad.com and hope for Google searches for LSD or heroin to bring him business. Ulbricht, according to the bureau, created the Silk Road using an anonymising network service called Tor, which offers secrecy and security both for his servers and for Silk Road users.
Tor stands for the Onion Router, a reference to the layers of encryption and security it offers; it functions as an anonymity network that bounces its users’ communications “around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world”, thereby protecting their identity, location and data. It was originally designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory for protecting government communication; it is now developed by a US-based nonprofit; donors include the US state department.