“THE SWAT TEAM BURST IN. THERE WAS CURTIS GREEN COVERED IN COCAINE AND FLANKED BY TWO CHIHUAHUAS”
~The Untold Story of Silk Road by WIRED
In early 2011, law enforcement agencies were caught with their pants down when drugs began to be shipped through the mail. After days of scourging the web and with the help of Reddit, they learned they (the drugs) were coming from an online drug network called the Silk Road. It was a discovery that would soon change the face of law enforcement for the better half of the next decade.
When crimes happen in dungy back alleys, it’s easy to find the crooks and put them behind bars. But what happens when the alleys don’t exist and the thieves are but names floating on a screen?
The Silk Road was a black market on the dark web: a section of the internet hidden from general public access. FBI operatives uncovered the secret operation hosted on a Tor server, where users could buy and sell goods.
Dark Web services like these weren’t unheard of in that time and age. But this was something different altogether. It was a pharmaceutical cornucopia with over 13,000 unique listings. Afghan Heroin, Strawberry LSD, Devil’s Liquorice, Caramellow Hash, Columbian Cocaine, if there was a drug that was on the market then they had it. And it wasn’t only hard drugs. The site sold prescription meds from Xanax to Fentanyl, offered hacking services, auctioned sold credit card numbers, and at a point even dabbled in putting out hits.
To put that into perspective your generic supermarket usually carries 8-10,000 unique items at any given time and smaller drug stores can carry a quarter of that load. The best part, if you had any questions about a product all you had to do was read the user reviews and gain comprehensive knowledge. Silk Road was the first and perhaps the only narcotic-selling website that had any aspect of customer service.
The reviews and community standards enforced excellent value which brought more users until Silk Road became the premier destination for digital drug sales.
In the words of former FBI Special Agent Milan Patel, “The Silk Road was the Amazon of drug sites.” While being investigated, it raked in over $1.2 Billion in untraceable currency from across the globe. Out of which more than $200 million dollars was handled by the site administrator: Dread Pirate Roberts. It was the advent of a new age of crime, the birth of the 21st-century criminal.
The entire site was a living breathing oxymoron. Law enforcement could monitor it for as long as they liked but without knowledge of where the servers were hosted or who the administrators were, they couldn’t lift a finger. DPR was taunting them, just like his character from the Princess Bride.
War had broken out; the united might of half a dozen law enforcement agencies against a single masked masquerade behind a screen. And whoever won this brutal bloodbath would soak in everlasting glory.
The DEA in Baltimore stuck to the old ways: an undercover sting called Operation Marco Polo. A choice few of their agents approached DPR online as clients hoping to expand the business and tried to earn his trust. An old-school gang infiltration. The FBI’s cyber division had a different approach. Amongst agencies, they were regarded as glorified college grads that ate yogurt and played ping-pong for a living. To them, this case was a redemption match.
And thus was born Operation Onion Peeler (no I am not making this up), the ultimate game of hiding and go seek. Tor stands for “The Onion Router” a technology used by the navy to conceal the location of their servers. It used multiple layers of masking and rerouting to hide the actual location of a system. Deemed unbeatable by the most brilliant minds in the world, the eager minds of the FBI began brainstorming ways to ‘peel the bulb’ and find the real IP address of Silk Road.
It was a long two years. No side gave an inch but slowly the cracks started to collect. Unable to handle the pressure from investors and sellers about the ongoing investigations and competition, as well as the exponential growth of the website, DPR began to trip. And to add to that his growing hubris of being the single biggest drug kingpin anywhere on the continent, made him careless. But none of these things did him in.
No, what exposed his entire operation was a single Google search by the FBI revealing a long-forgotten article on Stack Overflow. There might be special powers, but there is no such thing as a special person. DPR was no exception, and it cost him. Before the Silk Road he had left a digital cookie trail with his personal accounts on multiple websites. The FBI followed it to an age-old thread about a curl error on a PHP server. It was the highway to DPR’s real identity: 29-year-old Ross Ulbricht from San Francisco.
That wasn’t the worst of it.
The final nail in the coffin came from the same place the story began: Reddit. An anonymous user on the forum posted a warning that the Silk Road’s IP address was leaking. After hours of throwing data at the site, they were finally able to exploit its captcha and strike gold. A bug in the program: exposed by an internet geek trying to gain brownie points, had revealed the IP address of the drug dealing haven: a stronghold in Iceland. They had finally got their man.
DPR’s takedown didn’t take as long as finding him did. All it took was a subtle distraction to catch him in the act. Ross Ulbricht was arrested as he logged into his account on Silk Road. Multiple teams mobilized to capture him while at the same time the Silk Road servers were seized at the Thor Data Centre in Iceland. All at once, the entire network crumbled like a fragile Jenga tower.
Ross Ulbricht’s arrest came as a shock not only to his loved ones but also to the entire world. A physics grad, libertarian-revolutionist was behind the biggest drug cartel in the world? Far-fetched didn’t cut it. As his trial began protests broke out in his name, demanding the police free Ross.
Reddit, like always, erupted in flames defending his actions. To many people, Ross was a messiah, a man who had defeated the system and implemented a way for people to truly be free. Many questioned the prosecution: ideas that Ross had been framed ran rampant across the media. People spoke in figures, explaining how drug-related violence had gone down by 80% after Silk Road came up. Ultimately, everyone wanted only one thing: Ross and his dream had to survive.
In the end, the evidence against him was overwhelming. Two years after his arrest in 2013, he was eventually convicted of conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics by the means of the internet, and continuing a criminal enterprise. Ross is now serving his two life sentences and an extra forty years, with no chance of parole or bail.
Many tried to copy Ulbricht’s work but were taken down. In the end, no one was able to pull off what Ross had, and it seems no one will in the near future either.
Ross Ulbricht’s story, ironically, is much like that of Walter White from Breaking Bad. A chronicle of how power changes a man. How something that starts out pure and naive, can end up destroying the lives of millions.
“A real-life Heisenberg, who became the mask he was wearing. That is the sad fate of Ross Ulbricht: the man who dreamt of a free society.”
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