When you hear “Silk Road,” most people think of the historical trade route linking Asia and the Mediterranean. It’s little brother has made a new home – on the Deep Web. And Bitcoin is the currency of choice.
What is the Deep Web? It’s the back alley. The anonymous part of the internet. It was originally created by the United States government to make military communications secure across national borders. Revolutions have prospered from it as well. It provides secure connections between dissidents in an otherwise compromised communication channel. But more and more, it’s the place where drug dealers, hit men, and sex trafficking is thriving.
You need anonymizing software to access the Deep Web. It’s new enough that law enforcement is terrified of it – they don’t have enough trained agents to deal with the complexity and shear amount of lawlessness. The government opened up the Deep Web for public use to strengthen the network. The software that enables you use the Deep Web anonymously is called Tor.
Tor is free and obtainable in less than a minute. It has around 500,000 users. The U.S. government is still its primary funder. Other sources include Google, Swedish International Development Cooperative Agency, and The Knight Foundation.
The Silk Road began in 2011 and was the most popular site for criminals before its owner, Ross William Ulbricht, was caught last month. He is 29 years old, and was known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, or DPR. The FBI shut down the site, but it didn’t stay down for long.
Silk Road 2.0 surfaced four weeks after the first Silk Road shutdown and mocks the FBI in its defiance. It has a new owner, but he goes by the same moniker, Dread Pirate Roberts. DPR borrowed the name from The Princess Bride.
Silk Road 2.0 promises to be a more positive place, but you can still score a wide range of illegal products such as fake passports, an assortment of drugs, and just about anything you can imagine.
Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg conducted an in-depth interview with DPR back in August. DPR felt so confident about his anonymity via the Deep Web, he bragged about SR’s history, business model and his personal motivations. He says Silk Road is dedicated to freedom of choice. He believes people have the final say in what they do and when they do it. Government should not meddle in people’s lives, including drug use. DPR claims “we’ve won the State’s War on Drugs,” and anything other than pure freedom is “bondage.”
An Al Jazeera article speculates the site was brought down with the cooperation of one of its top administrators. Curtis Clark Green, otherwise known as “chronicpain” and “Flush,” had access to the site member’s financial accounts, including DPR’s, and users’ messages.
Green was caught by an undercover agent while acting as the middle man in a drug deal. After DPR found out Green had been caught, he ordered a hit on his own associate. The agent who arrested Green was the one asked to carry out the hit. Federal investigators saw the opportunity to enlist Green’s cooperation.
To make it look as if the hit had been carried out, law enforcement agents and Green faked his torture and death. It was part of a two-year Federal investigation based in Baltimore, Maryland. Authorities have not confirmed whether Green was the “dead” administrator in the staged photos, but Green is said to have confirmed it himself.
Before the Silk Road was shut down, its competitors were Black Market Reloaded, Atlantis, and Sheep Marketplace. Silk Road 2.0 was reborn with the help of former Silk Road moderators and users. The new site operates with a manifesto of freedom and ideas rather than materialism. It claims to have put in new security measures and that users will not lose their bitcoins in the event of seizure or shutdown.
Black Market Reloaded goes even further than Silk Road or Silk Road 2.0. BMR sells weapons. Recently, a gunrunner on BMR was caught and arrested after he tried to sell weapons to a Homeland Security agent. However, weapons are not a hugely popular item on the digital black market. Back in July, DPR cited lack of demand as the reason for not marketing them, but Silk Road 2.o is considering making them available again.
The Silk Road and its competitors serve as an online market for everything criminals need. And paying for the products and services is anonymous, thanks to bitcoins.
Bitcoins are a virtual currency that has no central banking system and almost has the anonymity of cash. It’s run by the users, and even new currency is created by users. The official creator of Bitcoin is a debated topic, some suggest it began with an idea and spread from there.
The system works like this: over a Peer-2-Peer network, a complex equation is created for each transaction between two computers. Special computers, called “miners,” race to solve this equation. The first computer to solve the equation is rewarded with bitcoins, usually about 25. This reward is outside of the original transaction. These computers are more powerful than your average computer, and they are typically dedicated to solving equations for transactions. The system transacts and creates at the same time. Over time, the value of each bitcoin has skyrocketed: the equivalent value right now is over $600 USD to one bitcoin, according to experts from the Federal Reserve. They are also used by legitimate businesses and the new international computer-based currency’s appeal is slowly spreading.
Deep Web black markets make getting drugs an easier and safer process. Instead of standing on a cold, dark street corner to wait for an armed drug dealer, kids can go online and receive the drugs in the mail a few days later. Just this week, a 17 year old in the United Kingdom overdosed on a drug cocktail while Skyping with his friends. He bought the drugs from Silk Road.
Unlike the real world, where policeman and Federal agents can trace, track, and watch suspects, the Deep Web provides stronger anonymity than any other domain. The authorities don’t yet have the expertise to track these criminals in a widespread fashion like they can conventional law breakers.
Deep Web criminals appear to be average citizens, but they are getting their kicks under cover of darkness on the digital street corner. There is no solid control, no solid regulation of this black market. It has international reach and it’s all operating in the name of freedom.
Silk Road Map: Taken by Simon Pielow on Flickr.com
Line of Methamphetamine: Taken by Michael Allen Smith on Flickr.com
Group of Guns: Taken by Gregory Wild-Smith on Flickr.com
Plugging into the Internet: Taken by photosteve101 on Flickr.com
- Why The Deep Web Has Washington Worried (swampland.time.com)
- Bitcoin makes a pitch for “safe and sane” regulation (usatoday.com)
- A Simple Guide To Silk Road, The Online Black Market Raided By The FBI (nation.time.com)