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Author Topic: The Silk Road trial | THE ECONOMIST  (Read 345 times)
Coinbuddy
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January 16, 2015, 04:29:30 PM
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MOST internet entrepreneurs dream of transforming an industry. On January 13th, one who may have done just that went on trial in federal court in Manhattan, accused of drug-trafficking, money-laundering and operating a criminal enterprise. Ross Ulbricht, a 30-year-old Texan physics graduate, is accused of being “Dread Pirate Roberts”, the founder and administrator of the Silk Road. This was the first website to make it possible to buy and sell illegal drugs online openly and with relative anonymity. His trial will raise questions not only about the extent and nature of cybercrime, but also about the limits of government snooping necessary to prevent it.

The Silk Road was shut down by the FBI at the end of 2013. It worked by combining two new technologies: Tor, which allows people to host websites without revealing where they are based, and bitcoin, a decentralised online currency which offers a close digital alternative to a bag of unmarked banknotes. On the site, buyers and sellers could trade with remarkable discretion. Over two years, deals generated 9.5m bitcoin in sales (worth $1.8 billion today, though the exchange rate has fluctuated wildly) and over 600,000 bitcoin in commission. That is enough booty to make Blackbeard throw away his cutlass and pick up a mouse.

The prosecution has already produced evidence that Mr Ulbricht was Dread Pirate Roberts. They argue that he left a digital trail, administering the Silk Road through unencrypted connections and using his personal e-mail address to look for technical help. More sensationally, they allege that he not only set up the site, but sought to defend it violently. As the Dread Pirate, Mr Ulbricht is accused of paying for the assassinations of several people who threatened the site, including one former employee. None of these murders seems to have happened, but they prevented Mr Ulbricht from being granted bail after his arrest in 2013.

Mr Ulbricht says he was framed: the real Dread Pirates remain at large. His lawyers also claim that the FBI may have used illegal methods to identify and seize the Icelandic server on which the Silk Road was hosted, and from which much of the evidence comes. The FBI says the site contained a vulnerability which revealed where it really was, despite Tor. But several technical specialists think this implausible. Sadly for Mr Ulbricht, it may not matter much. In a ruling in October, a judge concluded that since he has not admitted any legal interest in the Silk Road server, he is unable to claim under the Fourth Amendment that it was illegally searched, and so the evidence from the server is admissible however it was found. This, the judge admitted, “might appear to place Ulbricht in a catch-22”. If he admits to an interest in the server, he would weaken his defence at his trial; if he doesn’t, he has no chance of getting the evidence against him dismissed.

Mr Ulbricht’s defence, which has been generously funded by online donations, is thus likely to focus on the strength of the evidence linking him to the online activities of Dread Pirate Roberts. Nonetheless, cyber-criminals—as well as other users of the dark web—will be watching closely. Since the Silk Road was taken offline, several similar market-places have been started, and many closed by the authorities. But it is still far from clear whether police forces can crack the anonymity given by technology such as Tor, or how deeply they can legitimately snoop on the web to uncloak the hosts of criminal networks.

SOURCE: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21639525-one-dread-pirate-trial-what-about-others-bitcoin-buccaneers

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