The FBI has seized “Silk Road” and arrested its founder, according to New York prosecutors. Promoted online as an “anonymous Amazon.com”, the website was the worlds largest anonymous Internet marketplace from where controlled and illegal substances could be bought from the comfort of one’s own living room.
Known online as ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, US federal agents arrested Silk Road owner Ross William Ulbricht “without incident” in San Francisco on Tuesday. Authorities also seized $3.6 million worth of Bitcoins, the online currency, which was used instead of cash or credit cards to complete transactions on the website.
Silk Road became famous for its lax rules on what could be sold and bought, where illegal substances including cocaine and heroin, as well as criminal activities such as murder for hire, could be acquired with relative ease. The website could only be accessed through Tor, an anonymous web browsing system that allows its users to access the ‘Darknet’, where internet sites hidden from regular users reside. Now, however, when attempting to access the site users are presented with an FBI notice saying the website had been seized.
“From in or about January 2011, up to and including September 2013, the Silk Road Hidden Website… has served as an online marketplace where illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services have been regularly bought and sold by the site’s users,” said state court papers filed in the Southern District of New York.
“The complainant further alleges, in part, that the Silk Road Hidden Website is designed to facilitate the illicit commerce hosted on the site by providing anonymity to its users, by operating on what is known as The Onion Router or Tor network… and by requiring all transactions to be paid in Bitcoin, an electronic currency designed to be as anonymous as cash.”
Ulbricht, with Silk Road, hoped to “give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force” by “institutions and governments”. The marketplace swiftly took off, boasting over 900,000 users at its peak.
According to the FBI, Ulbricht generated over $1.2bn in sales through Silk Road, taking a cut ranging from 8% to 15%, and was heavily involved in money laundering operations in order to hide the activity. Authorities have also indicated ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ solicited the murder-for-hire of a Silk Road user by the name of FriendlyChemist, who had threatened to release the details of thousands of Silk Road customers:
He is threatening to expose the identities of thousands of my clients that he was able to acquire. This kind of behaviour is unforgivable to me. Especially here on Silk Road, anonymity is sacrosanct.
Ulbricht supposedly paid $150,000 in Bitcoins for the murder attempt, but it is not believed to have gone ahead.
The take-down has come as quite a shock to its users, especially considering the anonymous nature of the website and the Tor service. Now many are worried the FBI may have access to their contact details, and the money they had deposited on the website.
This is a big win for the FBI who have been trying to take down Silk Road for some time. However, there are many other smaller anonymous marketplaces still accessible through Tor that offer the same products and services as Silk Road, and no doubt many more marketplaces will pop up on the grid trying to fill the void left by Silk Road.