Ten years ago, a 27-year-old launched the most successful online drug market in Darkoob. This is the glorious story of Silkroad and its mastermind, Ross Ulbricht.
On October 2, 2013, at about 3:15 p.m., a group of plainclothes officers climbed the stone steps of the Glenn Park Library in San Francisco, one after the other, toward the end of the hall and the science fiction section. There, behind a wooden table, was a young man with dark hair, jeans, and a T-shirt chatting with his laptop.
The man’s name was Ross Ulbricht; A 29-year-old Austin, Texas graduate of physics and engineering from the University of Texas and Pennsylvania. Afbei believed that Ulbricht was involved in a vicious affair; In other words, the leader of a large online black market called “Silk Road” for buying and selling drugs and other illegal goods. According to AFBI, the 29-year-old was in fact a millionaire drug trafficker who had ordered the killing of at least two people in order to protect his empire.
The story of the beginning of Ross Ulbricht is not much different from other stories that come out of Silicon Valley. The same story of a young, intelligent and educated man who grew up in a middle-class family and suddenly came up with an idea that could change the world.
Silk Road was one of the first black markets on the Internet
Other men with similar circumstances launched services such as Uber to disrupt the traditional taxi business, Airbnb to disrupt the hotel business, or Yelp to disrupt the restaurant business. Ulbrick, however, decided to go to the drug market. His startup, dubbed “Silk Road,” kept material sellers in touch with buyers on the Internet.
After completing the purchase process, the purchased package was easily mailed to your home, and Ulbricht, like Amazon, charged a small commission on each sale. But unlike Uber founder Travis Callahan or Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, Ulbricht did not have a happy ending and was eventually arrested in a public library in San Francisco and sentenced to life in prison.
This tumultuous story is one of the first and most successful black markets on the Internet, which from 2011 to 2013, the US law enforcement agencies, from the Office of Drugs to the AFBI, sought to capture the mastermind and operator of the brain. Stay tuned for this article.
The face behind the mask
Ross Ulbricket grew up in a relatively affluent family near Austin, Texas. He studied physics at the University of Texas and earned a master’s degree in materials science from the University of Pennsylvania. But Ulbricht soon grew tired of laboratory research. During college, he became interested in psychotropic substances and talked on the Internet about his boredom with science and his new interest in economics.
He believed that taxes and the state were tools to use force and to maintain the government’s monopoly on violence. His ideas were strongly influenced by those of Ludwig van Mises , an Austrian economist who had a significant influence on the most liberal American movement in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Mises, citizens must have economic freedom in order to enjoy moral or political freedom.
“Any action taken outside the control of the government will strengthen the market and weaken the government,” he said.
After graduating in 2009, Ulbricht returned to Austin and turned to day trading, but to no avail. Then the video game company launched, but it also failed.
A neighbor later offered him a job at Good Wagon Books, a business that collected second-hand books and sold them in virtual stores such as Amazon. Ross designed the Good Wagon Books website, learned how to manage inventory, and wrote a custom script that set the price of a book based on its rating on Amazon.
It was then that Ulbricket first came up with the idea of creating an online marketplace where people could buy anything completely anonymously and leave no trace. This is how the spark of creating Silk Road hit his mind.
Silk Road’s success owes much to the creative combination of the encrypted Tor and Bitcoin systems that were still in their infancy at the time. By using an encrypted system, Ombright believed that its Internet marketplace could provide a safe, anonymous, and government-free environment for all users.
The tour, first developed by the US Navy for government calls and later turned into open source projects for public use, traverses user information through an extensive network of encrypted layers and hides its identity and location. Bitcoin also provides the user with an anonymous, decentralized money transfer platform that is hidden from the eyes of banks and governments. These two factors played a vital role in the formation and significant success of Silk Road.
Olbricket founded Silk Road in 2011 and nicknamed himself Dread Pirate Roberts, the secret identity of several characters in the novel and the Princess Bride film . In his view, Silk Road was “a way to eliminate the use of coercion and violence among human beings.” He also said that Silk Road is “a simulation of an economic system that will give people with first-hand experience of living in a world free of systemic violence.”
In Silk Road, the user rated the quality of the drugs
Silk Road was hidden in Darkoob, the part of the Internet that is hidden from the eyes of search engines like Google. Combining anonymous user interface and untraceable payments, the website allowed thousands of drug dealers and nearly one million buyers around the world to find each other and their drugs in an online store-like environment. Silkroad’s strength, along with its anonymity, was its scoring system similar to that of Amazon and eBay; In Silk Road, buyers rated the seller based on their satisfaction with the purchase and even shared their opinion about the quality of the purchased product.
Some Silk Road users demanded complete freedom of trade. Their argument was that if buying and selling heroin on this website is free, why not go for guns and body parts? But the website admin was very strict in this regard.
“Our basic rules are to treat others the way you want to be treated and to refrain from doing anything that harms or deceives others,” he said in a statement posted on the site’s forum. . »
Silk Road became very popular in a short time. When media outlets and news blogs like Gaker began writing about Silk Road in early 2011, significant traffic flowed to the website. As Silk Road became more popular, government officials began to pay attention to it, and efforts began to identify users and shut down the website. According to some reports, by the time the site closed, about $ 214 million had been raised through sales and $ 13.2 million had been awarded to the site owner. FBI but this figure to $ 1.2 billion in sales and $ 80 million in Sylkrvd commission report was given.
According to police, Ulbricht, with a daily income of $ 20,000 from the sales commission, had amassed a fortune of $ 80 million, most of which was spent on site maintenance. With all the wealth that Ulbricht had apparently gained, he seemed to have spent very little of it outside of the site. Some believe that Ulbricht’s savings amounted to $ 34 million, and much of that money is still stored in his Bitcoin wallet somewhere on the Internet.
70% of Silk Road products were drugs
Drug trafficking is not uncommon in the back alleys of San Francisco; What Silkroad did was create an alternative to this illegal trade; A place where anyone looking for materials could shop without encountering rogue vendors on unsafe alleys. This method also hid the sellers and buyers from the law and ensured the buyer’s website scoring system of the “quality” of their purchase.
In Silk Road, all kinds of drugs and psychedelics were traded. By the spring of 2013, there were 10,000 products on the website, 70% of which were drugs, according to AFBI.
In addition, 159 products were listed under the “Services” category, mostly related to hacking Facebook and Twitter accounts. More than 800 products were also hacked and illegal accounts of Amazon and Netflix. Counterfeit driver’s licenses, fake passports, fake water and electricity bills, and fake credit card purchase reports were also available on the website and could be easily purchased.
Silk Road was more of a shelter for its fans than a black market.
For DEPP, it was a political controversy. “Stop supporting the government by paying taxes and pour your productive energy into the black market,” he told users at the Silk Road Forum. Over time, Depir’s aspirations became more ambitious.
According to him, every sale and purchase on the Silk Road was a step towards global freedom. Silk Road was, in his view, a direct challenge to the power structure.
As Silk Road grew in popularity and became a global marketplace, Ulbricht, which introduced itself to DPR site users (DPR stands for Dread Pirate Roberts), reaffirmed its role as the most libertarian preacher. Users also welcomed his comments and considered him as Che Guevara. Some called him an entrepreneur and said his name would be recorded “among the greatest men and women in history.” Silk Road had now become a sectarian brand with tens of thousands of fans who considered the DEP to be Steve Jobs .
What we are doing is not buying drugs or confronting the government. The goal is to defend human rights and refuse to give up when we have not done something wrong. Silk Road is a means of conveying this message. “Everything else is secondary.”
With Silk Road facing the government and the law, officials tried to shut down the website for no reason. Although Ulbricht was pleased with the sudden media coverage of Silkroad in June 2011, and many users became familiar with the site, when US Senator Charles Schumer spoke at a news conference against Silkroad and called for its perpetrators to be shut down and arrested, Ulbricht was deeply moved. He became alarmed and called the US government his “main enemy” who sought to “destroy” him.
Appearance of Silkroad website
After downloading the tour and going to http://silkroadvb5piz3r.onion, users were faced with a login page asking for their username and password. If one wanted to create a new account, one had to use the link for new users and all the information that needed to be entered was the username, password and country name. The sellers’ account, however, was limited and had to be purchased at auction.
Upon arrival, Silk Road looked like a regular online store, except that instead of clothing and home appliances, it was full of drugs, fake documents and hacked accounts. The website was shut down in October 2013 after Ulbricket was arrested, but images of it are still available:
The story of Ulbricht’s arrest
The project to identify and arrest the owner and operator of the Silkroad website was the result of a year of cyber chases and research by traditional detectives. The task force that followed the Silk Road case under Operation Marco Polo (part of Operation Onymous to identify and close the Darkoob Internet market) ،, including agents of the AFBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Ministry of Homeland Security and the Counterintelligence Bureau. It was American drugs.
The task force was led by Christopher Tarbell, an AFBI agent who, according to one of Ulbricht’s attorneys, was a “very stubborn man.” Tarbell was the man who, shortly before the Silk Road case, arrested Hector Javier Mansger, known as “Sabo”, the founder of the hacking group LulzSec and a key member of Anonymous. The LulzSec group had cyber-attacked several companies and news organizations, including FoxNews, and even the Senate and the CIA, and its founder was sentenced to 124 years in prison.
Christopher Tarbell, AFP Officer who led the Silk Road Task Force
Another key factor in identifying Ulbricht as Silkroad’s mastermind was Gary Alford, an internal revenue officer. Alford was convinced that the person who started Silkroad must have talked about his site on regular websites to attract visitors.
On January 27, 2011, just days after Silkroad started, Alford was reviewing a number of tour addresses when he came across a post about Silkroad on the Shroomery.org forum. In this post, a user named “altoid” asked: کسی “Has anyone heard of Silkroad?” “It’s kind of like the anonymous version of the Amazon site … where you can buy and sell anything online and anonymously.” This post linked to the tour address of the Silk Road website and a blog that explained the registration process and how to use it.
Alford searched for the “altoid” username in Google Valley until he finally came across a post on March 16, 2013 on Stack Orflow, a site for programmers, in which a user with the same name talked about how to connect to a hidden service on the tour using the Curl programming language. Asked in PHP. This user’s email was email@example.com. This user also shared part of their website code as an example in the post.
Alford searches eventually led him to a forum for bitcoin users, where a user named “altoid” asked to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thus, the name of Ross Ulbricht entered the AFBI database as one of the main suspects in the Silk Road case.
But the clues to Ulbricht did not end there. In July 2013, a postal package sent from Canada was opened at the border checkpoint and nine fake ID cards with different names but with the same photo were found inside.
As usual, two officers from the Ministry of Homeland Security were sent to the postal recipient’s address, and Ulbricht opened the door for them. The photo on the ID cards matched his face. “Anyone can go to a website on the net, such as Silkroad, and order any drugs or fake identities they need,” Ulbricht told the two officers, according to Tarbell. However, the agents had no evidence to arrest him. Ulbricht apparently needed fake IDs to rent additional servers to deal with high site traffic and security issues.
An internet investigation by police officers also uncovered six online servers that tracked bitcoin exchanges between Silk Road buyers and sellers. According to the AFBI, they gained access to the months-long history of dealing in Silk Road, thereby gaining new information about drug dealers, which in some cases led to their arrest.
DPIAR was lazy about maintaining its personal security and website
However, DEPP was reluctant to maintain its personal security and website. On the one hand, he recorded all the events related to the development of Silk Road and his thoughts and feelings about this project on his laptop; On the other hand, he learned the basics of programming on his own via the Internet, leaving holes in the invisible cloak of the net.
However, he was proud of the remarkable success of his project and assured the website admins that there was no trace of them on the Internet. When a user warned the DPIER in a personal message that the physical location of his website servers was in danger of being leaked, the DPIR ignored the warning.
The user also warned him that the site’s servers could be easily copied. “Don’t worry,” Deepier replied. “The location of the servers is secure.”
In June 2013, the number of Silk Road users reached one million, but there was still no news of AFBI agents. Until a few days later, at the AFBI Cybercrime Office in New York, members of the Silk Road Special Group leaned over the monitor of one of their computers and saw something interesting in it: 18.104.22.168; The actual IP address of the Silk Road website, whose servers were located in the Thor data center in Iceland.
Tarbel claimed to have obtained Silk Road’s true IP from the site’s captcha information leak. This claim did not seem plausible to some cybersecurity experts, including Robert Graham ( Errata Security ) and Brian Krebs ( Security Krebs on Security ). Tarbell had not documented the discovery of IP Silk Road, and so many aspects of his claim are shrouded in mystery.
Ulbricht’s team of lawyers also admitted in court that AFBI agents had access to Silk Road servers in Iceland without a search warrant, thus violating the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution on the protection of privacy. This charge was ignored in court.
The Thor database stored system log information for up to six months; As a result, AFBI agents were able to identify all the computers that were recently connected to the server. One of the last IP addresses to be sent to Silk Road VIPs was to Café Luna on Skermanto Street in San Francisco. Tarbell added this address to the list of references in this case.
Part of the Tarbell team in New York was working hard to rebuild the entire Silk Road system. In doing so, they gained access to private messages, forums, the Bitcoin Trust Account (from which Depiber took its share every Saturday night), and the main Bitcoin server, which showed all of Silkroad’s transactions.
When the Tarbell team searched Ross Ulbricht’s name in the Federal Database, it found a report from Homeland Security officials about Ulbricht’s fake ID cards. A quick search revealed that Ulbricket lived near Café Luna in San Francisco. In the lab, a team working on rebuilding Silk Road servers noticed that the server code was similar to what Ross had posted on the Orflow stack a long time ago.
“We found him,” Tarbel told the ward head the next day.
Picture of Ross Ulbricht arrested in October 2013 in San Francisco
Now it was clear to Afbiyya that day was like the 29-year-old Debbie Ross Ulbricht; But there was not enough evidence to arrest him, and Ulbricht could deny everything. So they decided to keep an eye on him for a while to make sure that while Ross was connected to the Internet, the DIPR was also operating in Silk Road. And so it was. Each time Ross turned on his laptop, the DIPP was logged on to Silk Road. Each time the head of the laptop shut down, the DIPP was logged out. This process continued for weeks until the promised day arrived.
When Ross entered the Glenn Park Library on October 2, 2013, he was unaware of the presence of several police officers sitting in plain clothes behind his desk.
As usual, he opened his laptop to log into the Silk Road system from the library’s free internet.
The noise of the fight distracted him while he was chatting with an undercover agent who had long thought he was a regular user of the site. This moment of negligence was enough for one of the AFBI agents to remove the laptop from the table and quickly remove it from Ulbricht’s reach.
As Ross walked handcuffed from the library to the police car, the team that had access to the laptop realized they had found what they were looking for. Ross had logged into the Silk Road system with a DEPYR account and was still logged in. There was no longer any doubt about the identity of the mastermind of this black internet market, and the necessary evidence was available to arrest and convict Ulbricht.
Ross Ulbricht was charged with money laundering, hacking, conspiracy to smuggle drugs and attempting to kill six people. Prosecutors allege that Ulbricht paid $ 730,000 to hire people to commit the murder, but none of the killings took place, and Ulbricht was not convicted in court of any of the alleged assassinations.
On May 29, 2015, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two life sentences in addition to 40 years in prison without parole. Despite all the efforts made by Ulbricht’s lawyers to date, they have not yet succeeded in changing or reducing his sentence.
Ulbricht’s countless mistakes
As it seemed, Ulbricht sought to make an impact and change rather than worry about fully preserving his anonymous identity. Despite its success in creating eBay Drugs with anonymous servers and hidden identities, DEPYR did not have enough paranoia in maintaining its identity.
Influenced by Libertarian ideas of freedom of trade outside the control of government institutions, Ulbricht founded Silk Road and gained a lot of money and fame thanks to this website; But his pattern of behavior and the mistakes that trapped him in the law in just two years are far removed from the notion that many “criminal operative thinkers” have in mind.
Ulbricht’s first big mistake that led to his arrest was talking about his ideas for launching an online drug market on his personal LinkedIn page.
The second mistake was to use his real photo on the fake ID cards he had ordered to rent Silkroad servers.
His third mistake was asking for help in coding Silkroad with an account to which the attached email contained his real name. Worse, it was sharing part of the site code that Tarbel later discovered equated to Silkroad code.
Ulbricht’s behavior was not like the mastermind of a criminal operation
Olbricket also used his personal Google Plus account to find the best way to send mail packages to other countries, where his real name, face and YouTube profile were clearly visible. One of the videos Ulbricht saved on his YouTube profile for later viewing was from the Mises Institute channel, which supports the ideologies of Austrian economist Ludwig van Mises. Even this was used in court against him.
Tarbell said DiPier’s signature on the Silk Road forum contained a link to the Mises Institute’s website, and that DEPYAR cited the Austrian School of Economics and Fan Mises works as the cornerstone of Silk Road.
His fourth, and perhaps biggest, mistake that led the judge to mercilessly sentence him to life in prison was his correspondence with an undercover police officer who thought he was a drug dealer with murderous skills. According to AFBI, Ulbricket paid the undercover agent $ 80,000 to oust an old member of the site.
Although Ulbricht was not tried in court on charges of hiring a murderer for murder, and his family members believed the allegations were fabricated to tarnish Ulbricht’s public image, it is likely that the judge’s decision to convict him of Life imprisonment has not been ineffective.
The story of the accusations of hiring a murderer
There are many conflicting stories about Ulbricht’s allegations that he hired a murderer to kill several people. As part of the evidence against Ulbricht, AFBI brought to court the text of his correspondence with a person who thought he was Hitman (but was in fact a police officer); But for unknown reasons, the court never convicted Ulbricht of the charges.
That is why members of the Ulbricht family, who have since become convicted activists for reforming criminal justice, privacy and a fair trial, believe the allegations were fabricated. Ulbricht’s team of lawyers also raised in court the possibility that the person who ordered the killings under the name of Depiur was not Ulbricht because the main admin account was shared between several people.
However, one of the most well-known details of the story is by Andy Greenberg, lead author of WIRED, and ” This Machine Kills Mysteries: How WikiLeaks, Cypriots, and Hacktivists Try to Liberate the Information World. ” This book and the story of Silkroad by Greenberg inspired the recently released documentary ” Deepope ” (2015) directed by Alex Winter and the movie ” Silkroad ” (2021) directed by Taylor Russell.
In this account, Greenberg, who was the first journalist to be interviewed by DEPPR in 2013 , introduces one of the undercover agents, Carl Force, of the Counter-Narcotics Bureau, who registers on the Silkroad site under the pseudonym “Nob”. did. Force did not have any computer skills at first and did not know anything about Bitcoin; But when he joined the Silk Road task force, he decided to capture Silkroad’s mastermind sooner than the AFBI agents. To this end, in April 2012, it sent a message to the DEPP from a government laptop:
I’m a big fan of you. Your work is really great! I go to the main point. I want to buy a website. And I have been doing this for more than 20 years. Silk Road is the future of smuggling.
DPYR’s response to the offer to buy the website was negative.
Silk Road is more than just a business for me. Silk Road is a revolution and it has been my whole life. The transfer of ownership of the website is hurting the project, and now it’s more important to me than money.
DiPier thought Nure was the mediator of the Puerto Rican cartel. Force worked on his secret identity in Silkroad for more than a year to gain the trust of the DEP. Eventually his efforts paid off, and the two came closer together, so much so that if the DEP needed someone to listen to him at some point, he could count on pure help.
The DEP told Nab to change the order of torture to murder
Eventually, one of Silkroad suppliers, Curtis Green, was caught by police and was unable to contact DEPP for several days. DePIER was alarmed and was arrested after a little search on the internet to get Green. He was now afraid Green would reveal him to the police.
On the other hand, another employee of the website, Inigo, informed him that a number of bitcoins worth $ 350,000 had been withdrawn from several accounts connected to Silkroad. The DEPP correctly guessed that this was Green, but did not know that the money had been deposited in the account of an undercover detective who had identified himself as pure.
Ulbricht sent a message to Nab that there was a “problem” in Utah that needed to be resolved through violence. Nab promised to solve this problem. So he went to Green and forced her to cooperate. He then texted DEPPR that he had found Green and asked what he wanted to do with her now.
Ulbricht I asked him to beat Green and force him to return the stolen bitcoins.
But shortly afterwards, for fear of Green revealing his identity, he asked Nab to change the order of torture to murder. Nab had no problem with that either, so he staged Green’s death and sent photos of it to Ulbricht for approval. Olbricht paid him $ 80,000 for a murder that did not actually occur, and of course he never received the stolen bitcoins.
“I’m angry that I had to kill him,” Ulbricht finally told Nab. “But that’s what happened.” He later told Inigo that the order to kill Green was not for revenge, but for justice; New justice according to Silk Road law.
Although Forcebury’s mission to identify Ulbricht was marginalized and Silkroad’s case was in full control of FBI, and although the theft of Bitcoin from Ulbricht’s account had also opened his mouth to the case, as a last-ditch attempt to arrest Ulbricht he tried to persuade him to See each other at the airport to get him out of the country.
But Ross had no intention of going anywhere. He still thought that Tor and his intelligence would keep him hidden from the eyes of the law forever. Ross did not know that AFB agents were planning to arrest him at that moment. He thought he was invulnerable.
Life imprisonment without parole; A fair verdict?
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the story of Ross Ulbricht and Silkroad is his sentence. Is twice life imprisonment plus forty years without parole a fair sentence to create a black market for drugs?
Ulbricht said he was motivated to create Silk Road by launching the website to reduce harm during the US war on drugs. In his view, Silk Road provided a safer environment for the sale and purchase of illegal goods, thus harming sellers and buyers.
In court, he asked the judge to give him years of old age instead of life imprisonment so that he would have a “course of light at the end of the tunnel.” But Federal Judge Catherine Forrest told him that her arguments were influenced by her special privileges as an educated middle-class citizen and that no drug trafficker had tried to acquit her before. With this sentence, the judge tried to teach Ulbricht a lesson for other cybercriminals so that they no longer think about creating such markets.
Of course, this judge’s optimism did not materialize in practice, because shortly after the closure of Silkroad by AFBI, a number of website admins, including Inigo, launched Silkroad 2.
Ulbricht’s family and supporters continue to seek a reduction in his sentence. A petition for change of Ulbricht has changed more than 400,000 signatures to date on change.org . The lawsuit alleges that Silk Road’s investigation and prosecution was marred by violations of the law, disregard for civil rights, and corruption by police officers.
Two federal police officers, including force, to steal Bitcoin accounts Sylkrvd during the investigation in 2015 to life in prison were sentenced . There were also allegations of illegal eavesdropping on Ulbricht’s home without permission and access to the site’s Icelandic servers.
Ulbricht’s mother believes her son’s sentence is much heavier than other people with similar crimes. He specifically mentioned Blake Benthal, the owner and manager of Silk Road 2, who was imprisoned for only 13 days and later released.
Ulbricht’s sentence is heavier than other people with the same crime
Ulbrickett’s mother insists that since Ross had never been charged with causing bodily harm to anyone and that he had never been charged with hiring a murderer or ordering murder, these cases should not have influenced Ulbricht’s sentence of life imprisonment.
If the efforts of the Ulbrick advocacy group succeed, it may lead to important decisions about privacy and independence of action in the digital context, as well as the responsibility of online tool makers for what others do with them. Until that day, however, Ulbricht will continue to serve his life sentence in the US Federal High Security Prison.
December 2012, about a year before Silkroad was arrested and the story of Silkroad ended, young Ross Ulbricket and his friend Rene Penel go to StoryCorps, an institution that invites people to share their life experiences and to record their experiences and aspirations for The future sits in front of the camera. In the video of the conversation, Rene asks him, “What are your plans for the next 20 years?”
“I want to have a fundamental and positive impact on the future of humanity by then,” Ross replies.
Renee asks him if he thinks he is going to live forever. “Yes,” Ross says with a smile. “I think it is possible.”