Last month, U.S. authorities arrested Ross William Ulbricht and charged him with running an online marketplace for a cornucopia of illegal goods and deals. That online bazaar was called The Silk Road, which, like its fabled namesake, offered visitors just about anything they desired.
The arrest has thrown light on two disturbing elements of the Internet — the existence of the so-called Deep Web, a massive virtual world that is not visible to most Web users or search engines, and the use of Bitcoin, a rapidly expanding digital currency that allows for anonymous transactions.
These revelations are a reminder that despite fears of living in a surveillance state, substantial parts of the digital world remain unobserved and unregulated — perhaps dangerously so.
The Silk Road, sometimes called the eBay of the black market, was set up in 2011. Its 900,000 users could deal in just about anything illegal, including counterfeit currencies and documents, drugs, guns, hacking services and even murder for hire.
Transactions on Silk Road were conducted in Bitcoin, a digital currency that is actually an open-source protocol running on computers. Users can either buy Bitcoin with traditional currency or “mine” it, which involves using computers to solve complex problems and getting Bitcoin in return as reward. Experts believe there is more than $1 billion in Bitcoin in circulation worldwide.
It is estimated that 600,000 bitcoins, worth about $1.2 billion exchanged hands at Silk Road, earning it the label of “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet today,” in the criminal complaint against Ulbricht. U.S. officials seized about $3.6 million in bitcoins when they took the “digital wallets” of some users.
Silk Road and Bitcoin were designed to foster anonymity and permit transactions that would leave no trace of the people behind them. Ulbricht, charged with narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, computer-hacking conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy, was arrested not because of ace digital detective work but because he slipped up and left real-world fingerprints.
He was arrested when fake IDs he ordered online from Canada were discovered at a routine border search and the authorities followed them to his home. His penchant for using the same or similar names in multiple accounts — at Silk Road, he was known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” a moniker apparently taken from “The Princess Bride,” which he sometimes shortened to DPR — helped law enforcement officials narrow their search. Other Silk Road miscreants have been arrested when they made the same types of mistakes.
Silk Road is only part of larger digital world, often referred to as the Deep Web. Most of us are familiar only with the Surface Web, the part indexed by standard search engines. Those services, however, merely trawl the surface of the worldwide web; as much as 96 percent of the Internet remains beyond their algorithms.
Access to these websites is by invitation only, available only to those who know where to look and which digital doors to knock on. There, many transactions occur, shrouded by encryption software from any scrutiny or regulation. Many, but not all, of the transactions are illegal.
Therein lies one of the biggest problems for regulators and users. Encryption might always be used to hide from prying eyes, but not all transactions or interchanges should be visible.
Terrorists and criminals deserve no safe havens, but many civil society groups battling authoritarian governments use the same technologies. So, too, do individuals who wish to protect personal information from unauthorized access.
Today the headlines are dominated by reports of unlimited surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). In the case of Bitcoin and the Deep Web, the fear is that the NSA is not doing its job properly.
Law enforcement is waking up to these new challenges, but technology continues to outpace the detectives. Finding people with the right skill set is difficult; being able to afford them when that means competing with the astronomical salaries offered by the private sector makes it a whole new type of challenge.
The bigger question remains, however: How can we ensure privacy while guaranteeing accountability?
Bitcoin worries tax authorities because it permits anonymous transactions and money transfers. Of course, not every anonymous exchange is illegal. Indeed, there is hope among some Bitcoin enthusiasts that the closing of Silk Road will help lift the taint of illegality that has shrouded the digital currency.
If its proponents are serious about wanting Bitcoin to be a legitimate currency, then this is their chance, but they will have to do more to ensure that users comply with appropriate laws and regulations.
Illuminating the dark elements of the Deep Web is another matter. As in the case of icebergs, we must assume that they exist even when we cannot see them.
It is hard to believe that the prodigious talents at places like the NSA — and it is not the only repository of such skills — cannot apply themselves to these problems as well as the more traditional security threats they focus on today. These threats are every bit as real and as dangerous as the terrorists they are currently hunting down.