Creating a marketplace through which roughly $1.2 billion worth of illicit substances — from guns and ammunition to drugs and hacking software — and (allegedly) hiring hit-men to kill those who threaten to expose your identity hasn’t ended well for Ross Ulbricht, the alleged founder of the Silk Road. Ulbricht has been arrested and charges have been posted in southern New York and Maryland for both activities.
Now the question is whether Ulbricht’s arrest and the shuttering of Silk Road were motivated by a desire to arrest anyone who (allegedly) lives in flagrant disregard of the law or whether this is merely the latest attempt by the US government to attack Internet anonymity.
It would be easy to manipulate Silk Road’s background to make the second scenario seem reasonable. The site was only accessible via the Tor network. It is the single most important entity to Bitcoin. And its illicit nature provided the perfect cover for the government to claim that the shutdown is part of the “war on drugs” and “good for our nation’s youth” and whatever party line sound bites sound best.
For its part, Tor says that its network doesn’t appear to have been compromised by the government’s hunt for Ulbricht. “So far, nothing about this case makes us think that there are new ways to compromise Tor (the software or the network),” the Tor Project says on its blog. “The FBI says that their suspect made mistakes in operational security, and was found through actual detective work.”
Those mistakes include (allegedly) hiring undercover cops to torture and kill employees or potential snitches and leaving crumbs of identifying information across online forums, Google+, and LinkedIn.
While it would be reasonable to assume that the government has an interest in compromising Tor, especially in the wake of revelations concerning the National Security Agency’s attempts to gather information about seemingly everyone on the Web, it does not appear to be the case. (Not in relation to the Silk Road shutdown, anyway.) The “dark web” is fine. Saying otherwise without evidence is like saying that the FBI has declared a war on roads because they happened to make a single drug bust on Main Street.
Bitcoin is a bit thornier. The government has previously targeted Bitcoin-related companies, such as the Mt. Gox bitcoin exchange, and the Silk Road bust has led to the largest seizure of bitcoins to date. The question now is whether this is a routine seizure — to return to the drug bust example above, not every asset seizure is a war on the US dollar — or a coordinated effort to go after the crypto-currency, which allows people to anonymously purchase just about anything.
In reality, there isn’t any single entity in control of Bitcoin. That’s kind of the point — it allows people to purchase things anonymously, sure, but it also allows them to circumvent established financial systems and take direct control over the currency, which is generated by the people, for the people. (One gets the impression that if the Tea Party developed such a currency it would be called the “Patriot Coin” and be described in much the same way.)
The current political climate suggests that any of these conspiracy theories are possible. It would fit: The US government has a demonstrated interest in subverting anonymity and other security features, and taking down an illegal marketplace would provide the perfect cover for such attempts.
The trouble is that there is no evidence of ulterior motives in the government’s investigation into Silk Road. Other revelations, such as the NSA’s attacks on cryptography and widespread data-mining, are backed up by many documents leaked by Edward Snowden and fastidiously examined by the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ProPublica. (Not necessarily at the same time, of course.)
While it’s wise to question the government’s role with the Internet, and while it would be damning to discover that it was attacking Tor and Bitcoin and using Silk Road’s shuttering as an excuse, the evidence simply isn’t there. Yet.
Sometimes a drug bust is simply a drug bust.