Silk Road

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Silk Road
Silk road.png

Silk Road was an online marketplace operating on a purely peer-to-peer online network, also known as the "Dark Web" or "Darknet." Using bitcoin as its main currency and Tor, it was able to provide the means for users to make purchases online without being traced by banks, government institutions, or other third parties. Silk Road was primarily used for criminal activity. It was shut down in 2013 after the arrest of its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, by the FBI. Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison. His co-operator Roger Thomas Clark fled to Thailand, but was later extradited and put on trial for "conspiring to distribute massive quantities of narcotics," to which he plead guilty in January 2020.[1][2]


Cryptocurrency has been used widely by criminals in the digital realm. This is especially the case in "Darknet" markets, or digital markets hidden from search engines like Google or Bing and thus available only to a select group of people - those "in the know."[3] In 2013, the FBI arrested Ross William Ulbricht (styling himself "Dread Pirate Roberts"), boss of the anonymous online drug marketplace, the Silk Road. Along with Ulbricht, they seized over 26,000 bitcoins, which were apparently the currency of choice for the illegal digital drug market. At the time, the seized amount equated to roughly $3.6 million. FBI officials admitted that they were unsure of what to do with the seized digital assets, stating simply, "this is kind of new to us...we'll probably just liquidate them."[4]

Criminology researchers Judith Aldridge and David Décary-Hétu published a paper in 2014 focusing on the incident as a case study for the impact cryptocurrencies have had on criminal activity, especially digital crime. The study explored how the Silk Road created a virtual market that significantly reduced the risk involved with criminal activity. Not only did it provide a method to move capital from vendor to buyer without it moving through a central authority like a bank, it also removed the necessity of being in the physical presence of a drug dealer.[5] Because of this, an estimated 1,200 deaths may have been prevented, though these figures are extremely difficult to verify.[6][7] For a time, this system worked so well, Ulbricht was able to carry out his daily operations from his personal laptop while sitting in the Science Fiction section of his local library, connected to its WiFi network.[8] Though many have been shut down by the United States federal government, or been targeted by scammer or hacking attacks, there has been a sizable influx of sites offering similar services using the Silk Road's model the site was taken down.[9]

Consequently, the online drug marketplace has become decentralized. Most transactions carried out over the Silk Road service occurred over TOR, a browser jointly developed by U.S. and Swedish government agencies in a U.S. Naval research lab.[10][11] Using TOR, users' identities and activities are well-protected from network surveillance, as well as third parties. Between the privacy afforded by the TOR service and the anonymity of bitcoin and altcoin services, not to mention the marked decrease of risk inherently involved with participating in criminal behavior,[12] Darknet markets have thrived.

Law enforcement agencies have had an exceptionally difficult time keeping up with the market's constantly-changing nature.[13] Users and vendors have begun to feel so safe, in fact, websites offering illicit services have been able to post publicly without incriminating individual users. In a bizarre development, the dichotomy of being able to operate within the opacity of services like TOR and financial systems based on bitcoin, combined with the resulting transparency of services provided and discussed throughout the broader criminal community (some users have posted experiences they had with drug and weapons dealers, even the results of chemical tests performed on contraband they purchased), customer service and product quality have become key aspects of competition between vendors of illegal goods and services like never before.[14]