Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Breaking Bitcoin: the Largest Internet Drug Bust in History

Flickr/Zach Copley

If people were to find a real-life equivalent to Walter White, the family man turned crystal meth kingpin of AMC’s hit show “Breaking Bad,” the name Ross Ulbricht would never come up in conversation, even to people who knew him. The 29-year-old San Franciscan seemed to his friends and roommates a normal guy, an enterprising but otherwise innocuous young man who studied physics in college and sought to strike gold through a curious online currency named Bitcoin. No one could have known until his recent arrest that their unassuming acquaintance was the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts, the enigmatic mastermind behind Silk Road, the largest narcotics distribution service on the Internet. But with Ulbricht in FBI custody and his Silk Road empire in ruins, larger questions are raised about the nature of anonymity and privacy on the Internet.

At the time of its official seizure under an official FBI complaint, the Silk Road is expected to have processed $1.2 billion in anonymous Bitcoin transactions since its birth at the beginning of 2011, offering narcotics ranging from prescription drugs to LSD. The site also offered contacts that advertised illegal weapons and services such as hacking, forgery and malicious software, which were eventually prohibited under direct order from Dread Pirate Roberts.

All transactions by Silk Road users were filtered through a double layer of anonymity: the Tor network and the Bitcoins themselves. Tor, an acronym for “The Onion Router,” was originally designed by the Navy as a method of preserving Internet confidentiality by scrambling every participant’s IP address throughout a distributed cloud of nodes all over the globe, but has since become a bastion of both free speech and illegal activities. Bitcoins are a form of completely digital currency that is prized both for its independence from conventional forms of economic dependence, like banks, and for its fundamentally anonymous nature as a method of conducting illegal activities. One can easily see how both would admirably serve the Silk Road’s purposes.

The capture of Ross Ulbricht, however, has cast a shadow over legitimate advocates of both services. The FBI maintains that it connected Ulbricht to Dread Pirate Roberts through a conventional, if highly elaborate sting operation in which an undercover agent posed as a would-be hit man contracted to dispose of a former Silk Road employee, thus implying the Tor network remains unbroken. Bitcoin (a frequent victim of the Silk Road’s infamous influence yet also largely dependent on the illegal service as a significant presence in its online market) has taken a crushing blow with the FBI’s seizure of the site, which included confiscation of almost $3 million worth of Bitcoins.

The effects of the Silk Road’s closure on the Bitcoin market, as well as the role of anonymity and electronic commerce on the Internet, remain to be seen. It is certainly sobering to consider the possibility of a real-world Heisenberg, the name of Walter White’s ruthless alter-ego. Ulbricht’s flair for the dramatic is conveyed through his own moniker, but his social media presence on sites like Google+ and LinkedIn, and charismatic endorsement of libertarian ideals, must have certainly impacted his decisions as the commanding influence of the Silk Road. “I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind,” Ulbricht asserts on his LinkedIn page.

For all his charisma and bravado, if the crimes alleged of him are true, Ulbricht is truly a heinous individual, but his sentiments about the changing role of the Internet in human society and culture must not be denied. The FBI did not fail to infiltrate the Tor network for lack of trying. In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, the digitization of commerce, and by extension crime, is all but inevitable. Recent revelations regarding the NSA and drone surveillance have shocked the world, and the collapse of the Silk Road has only steepened the slope. In the words of Heisenberg himself, maybe our best course would be to tread lightly.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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    Jack KellyOct 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    nice article john !