Internet’s underworld: Click for a brick of cocaine

Internet’s underworld: Click for a brick of cocaine

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

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

It’s up a flight of steps,past the circulation desk and Romance stacks,over in Science Fiction.

On a recent Tuesday,federal officers entered a public library in San Francisco and arrested a young man who they say ran a vast Internet black market — an eBay of illegal drugs.

Their mark,Ross William Ulbricht,says he is not Dread Pirate Roberts,the nom de guerre of the mastermind behind the marketplace,Silk Road.

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

That this story intruded at a public library in a nice neighbourhood says a lot about the dark corners of the Internet. The Dark Web,as it is known,is everywhere and nowhere,and it’s growing fast. No sooner was 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.


“It took the FBI 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”.

First,there was Tor,a suite of software and network computers that enables online anonymity. Edward Snowden used Tor to leak government secrets. Of course,drug dealers and gunrunners prefer anonymity too.

Then there is bitcoin,the cryptocurrency that has been skyrocketing in value lately. Bitcoin is basically virtual cash — anonymous,untraceable currency.

It’s hardly news that there are bad actors on the Internet. But the growth of the Dark Web is starting to attract attention. Senator Thomas R Carper,the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs,warned recently that the authorities seemed to be playing Whac-a-Mole with websites like Silk Road. This,the senator said,“underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly”.

How many Silk Roads are out there? Silk Road claimed to have 1 million registered users worldwide. Another site,Black Market Reloaded,advertises illegal semiautomatic handguns and rifles. A third,Atlantis,specialises in prescription pills. After the original Silk Road shut down,Sheep Marketplace,which sells weapons,drugs and counterfeit documents,quickly rose in popularity.

Parmy Olson,the author of We Are Anonymous,said that it was difficult to spot the criminals of the Web in the real world.

After Jake Davis,the young hacker known as Topiary,was arrested in Scotland in 2011,Olson flew over to meet him. Davis,who worked for Anonymous and other groups,eventually pleaded guilty to attacks on several sites. But he was nothing like she expected. “He was just a scruffy and shy teenager,” Olson said. And there are plenty of people like him — or the Dread Pirate Roberts — ready to step in and fill their shoes.

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