Disruptions: A Digital Underworld Cloaked in Anonymity


Dec 3, 2013 (4 years and 7 months ago)


Disruptions: A Digital Underworld Cloaked in Anonymity



November 17, 2013, 11:00 am


So this is where they collared
the man they call
the Dread Pirate

It’s up a flight of stone steps, past the ci
rculation desk and the Romance stacks, over in
Science Fiction, far corner.

On a sunny Tuesday in October, federal officers entered the public library in the Glen
Park section here and arrested a young man who they say ran a vast Internet black

n eBay of illegal drugs.

Their mark,
Ross William Ulbricht
, says he is not the F.B.I.’s D
read Pirate Roberts, the
nom de guerre of the mastermind behind the marketplace, Silk Road. And the facts, his
lawyer says, will prove that.

However this story plays out, Silk Road already stands as a tabloid monument to old
fashioned vice and new
ed technology. Until the website was shut down last
month, it was the place to score, say, a brick of primo cocaine with a few anonymous
strokes on a computer keyboard. According to the authorities, it greased $1.2 billion in
drug deals and other crimes, i
murder for hire

That this story intruded here, at a public library in a nice little neighborhood, says a lot
ut the dark corners of the Internet. Glen Park isn’t the gritty Tenderloin over the hills,
or Oakland or Richmond out in East Bay. And that is precisely the point. The Dark Web,
as it is known, is everywhere and nowhere, and it’s growing fast.

No sooner w
as the old Silk Road shut down than a new, supposedly improved Silk Road
popped up. Other online bazaars for illegal guns and drugs are thriving.

And the Dread Pirate Roberts

the old one, a new one, who knows?

is back,
taunting the authorities. (The p
seudonym is a reference to a character in the film “The
Princess Bride” who turns out to be not one man but rather many men passing down the

“It took the F.B.I. two and a half years to do what they did,” the Dread Pirate Roberts
wrote last week on

the new Silk Road site. “But four weeks of temporary silence is all
they got.”

So catch us if you can, the Dread Pirate is saying. The new Silk Road has overhauled its
security and “marks the dawn of a brand new era for hidden services,” he wrote.

The qu
estion is, can anyone really stamp out the Dread Pirates? Like the rest of the
Internet, the Dark Web is being shaped and reshaped by technological innovation.

First, there was Tor, short for The Onion Router, a suite of software and network
computers tha
t enables online anonymity. Edward J. Snowden used Tor to leak
government secrets, and the network has been important for dissidents in places like
Iran and Egypt. Of course, drug dealers and gunrunners prefer anonymity, too.

Then there is bitcoin, the cr
yptocurrency that has been skyrocketing in value lately.
Bitcoin is basically virtual cash

anonymous, untraceable currency stuffed into a
mobile wallet. The kind of thing that comes in handy when buying contraband.

It’s hardly news that there are bad ac
tors on the Internet. People have been hacking this
and stealing that for years. But the growth of the Dark Web is starting to attract attention
in Washington. Senator Thomas R. Carper, the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of
the Committee on Homeland Sec
urity and Governmental Affairs, warned recently that
the authorities seemed to be playing Whac
Mole with websites like Silk Road. As soon
as they hit one, up pops another.

the senator said
, “underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic
and ever
evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly.”

The F.B.I. declined to disc
uss the Silk Road case. But some security experts wonder
how authorities can effectively police the Walter Whites of the web.
Matthew D. Green
, a
research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, sa
ys buying illegal drugs
online is now easier than buying them on the street corner. Mr. Green says that Tor is
incredibly difficult to crack, but that what is really driving all this is digital cash like bitcoin.

“And cash, in small sums, is completely un
traceable,” he said.

Hsinchun Chen
, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of
Arizona, told me that the situation was getting worse, and that there had been a rapid
rise in the

last few years. Mr. Chen has done research on the Dark Web and found that
programmers use a vast network to trade software for drugs and other contraband.
Many of these sites are set up so they can be replicated quickly if authorities take them

“This underground has grown so widespread in recent years that entire international
virtual communities and black markets have been spawned across the Internet to help
facilitate trade between cyber criminals scattered in different parts of the world,” Mr.

Chen said.

How many Silk Roads are out there? No one really knows. Silk Road claimed to have
one million registered users worldwide. Another site, Black Market Reloaded, advertises
illegal semiautomatic handguns and AR
style rifles. A third, Atlantis,

specializes in
prescription pills. And after the original Silk Road was shut down, Sheep Marketplace,
which sells weapons, drugs and counterfeit documents, quickly rose in popularity,
according to Forbes.

Parmy Olson, the author of “
We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec,
Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency
,” said that it was difficult to spot the
criminals and troublemakers of the web in the

real world. The bad guys on the Internet
do not look like the bad guys we know, she said.

After Jake Davis, the young hacker known as Topiary, was arrested in the Shetland
Islands of Scotland in 2011, Ms. Olson flew over to meet him. Mr. Davis, who worke
d for
Anonymous, LulzSec and other groups, eventually pleaded guilty to attacks on several

He was nothing like she expected. “He was just a scruffy and shy teenager,” Ms. Olson
said. And there are plenty of people like him

or the Dread Pirate Rob

ready to
step in and fill their shoes.