Silk Road by Eileen Ormsby – Extract

9781742614090A Word from the Dread Pirate Roberts

Greetings and welcome to Silk Road!

I know you can’t wait to get to the good stuff, but please take a moment to read this message. It’s been written to help keep you safe, make the most of your time here and let you know what this is all about.

Let’s start with the name. The original Silk Road was an old-world trade network that connected Asia, Africa and Europe. It played a huge role in connecting the economies and cultures of these continents and promoted peace and prosperity through trade agreements. It is my hope that this modern Silk Road can do the same thing, by providing a framework for trading partners to come together for mutual gain in a safe and secure way.

You may be shocked to find listings here that are outlawed in your jurisdiction. That doesn’t mean Silk Road is lawless. In fact, we have a very strict code of conduct that, if given a chance, most people I think would agree with. Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated, mind your own business, and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else. In the spirit of those rules, there are some things you will never see here, and if you do please report them. They include child pornography, stolen goods, assassinations and stolen personal information, just to name a few. We also hold our members to the highest standards of personal conduct and work tirelessly to prevent, root out and stop any scammers that may try to prey upon others.

However, the best way to stay safe and make sure your experiences here are enjoyable is to educate yourself on how Silk Road works, and take advantage of all the tools and guidelines we have made for you. A link to a complete guide can be found on your account page, but here are a few tips to get you started:

• Always use the escrow system! This can’t be stressed enough. 99% per cent of scams are from people who set up fake vendor accounts and ask buyers to pay them directly or release payment before their order arrives. This behav-iour should be reported immedi ately. If you do choose to do this, we will be completely unable to help you in the event of fraud.

• Read the forum and the wiki. They contain a wealth of information and many in our forum community are eager to help a new member with a respectful attitude.

• Start small. Do a few small trades until you are comfort-able with the process before throwing all of your bitcoins at a big purchase.

The old saying ‘With freedom comes responsibility’ couldn’t be more true here. You will find easy access to things that could get you in trouble with your authorities and are downright terrible for your health. So, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

However, I’m not your daddy and it’s your job to judge what is good and bad for you. No one else can do that. Stay safe, have fun, and come say hi on the forums!

Your faithful servant,

Dread Pirate Roberts – ‘A Word from the Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the landing screen of the Silk Road website

Prologue

The computer screen displays a bewildering array of drugs.

Colourful pictures of powders and pills in various quantities offer inducements to buy: Border-proof delivery! Ten per cent extra on orders over 5 grams! Underneath each picture is a price, using an unfamiliar currency symbol. Scrolling down the green-and-white page, a potential customer might click on heroin from Canada, crystal meth from Australia or LSD from the Czech Republic. Once a choice is made, another click would add them to the checkout basket, ready to be shipped. Just like on Amazon. In the top left-hand corner of the screen a strange symbol –like a capital B with two lines through it, reminiscent of an American dollar sign – displays the user’s account balance in bitcoin.

A German seller calling himself ‘Jurgen2000’ is offering MDMA, the powder form of ecstasy. Clicking on the listing reveals  Jurgen has a great reputation. His feedback is full of praise for his prices, quality and delivery times.

A savvy Silk Road user uses PGP (‘pretty good privacy’) encryption to encrypt the delivery address to Jurgen. Once installed, with a couple of clicks PGP can change any block of text into a long para-graph of indecipherable gibberish that will be unreadable to all but Jurgen, who will have the private key to crack the code to return it to normal text. Anyone who managed to seize the Silk Road servers would not be able to get the buyer’s name and address from that order. Not even the Silk Road administrators could unscramble the information.

Within a few hours of an order being placed, Jurgen marks the delivery as ‘in transit’ and sends the buyer a cheery message saying that the order is on its way. ‘Please,’ Jurgen writes, ‘if there is any problem, send me a message before complaining to admin or in the forums. We should be able to work it out without the need to go to resolution.’ Depending on where you are in the world from Jurgen, a few days later a nondescript white envelope bearing a German post-mark and the return address of a real estate agent arrives. Folded within a couple of pieces of paper that are blank except for ‘1M’ typed on one of them, is a vacuum-sealed pack of a brown–white powder. The buyer tests the ecstasy – either using a reagent purity-testing kit, or the old-fashioned way: ingesting it. Then it is a matter of logging in to the site through Tor, the program that provides anonymity, and finalising the order by releasing the funds from escrow into Jurgen’s account. The site then ask the buyer for feedback, and Jurgen always gets five out of five.

He’s a polite seller on the other side of the world, eager to provide good service to ensure he maintain his five-star rating and receives repeat custom. Welcome to a new era of drug dealing.

Part One

Onionland

Silk Road Charter

Silk Road is a global enterprise whose purpose is to empower people to live as free individuals. We provide systems and platforms that allow our customers to defend their basic human rights and pursue their own ends, provided those ends do not infringe on the rights of others.

Our mission is to have voluntary interaction between individuals be the foundation of human civilization.

We conduct ourselves and our enterprise from the following fundamental values that are at the heart of who we are: Self-ownership

Individuals own their bodies, thoughts and will. Anything they create with their property or obtain without coercion is also theirs.

Responsibility

People are responsible for their actions. If one infringes on another’s rights, the victim has the right to defend themselves.

Equality

Property rights apply to all individuals equally, without exception.

Integrity

Honoring one’s word as one’s self. Word, thought, and action are aligned.

Virtue

Striving to improve one’s self and the lives of others in all actions. To create value.

We promise to be true to our purpose, to accomplish our mission, to operate consistent with our values, and to run our enterprise in service of our customers.

This is who we are.

This is what you can count on.

– Silk Road website

I began working on a project that had been in my mind for over a year. I was calling it Underground Brokers, but eventually settled on Silk Road. The idea was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatso-ever that could lead back to them.

– Dread Pirate Roberts journal entry, 2010

Taking Drug Deals Off the Street

Drug deals can be problematic for recreational users. The pills may not contain the substances they are supposed to, the powders may be cut with toxic matter. The quality can vary wildly from purchase to purchase and there is no ombudsman to complain to in the case of being ripped off. The dealer might be a shady character who reacts violently when things go wrong.

Sam Tyler, a thirty-something Sydneysider, relayed a familiar story about his weekend. He’d wanted some ecstasy for a night out and visited a friend-of-a-friend dealer he’d used twice before.

‘I arranged to pick up a couple of green mitzis [ecstasy tablets stamped with a Mitsubishi logo],’ Sam said. ‘But when I got there, they’d run out of them and gave me these other ones, yellow Russians, which they said were just as good.’ Although he would have preferred to research the other pills before commit-ting his $70, dealers could get pissed off when customers left empty-handed.

‘When I got home, I checked them out on Pillreports [a website on which users provide feedback on pills available in their area],’ Sam said. ‘Flashed up red. Fuckin’ pipes.’ ‘Pipes’, or piperazines, are a family of drug with vaguely similar effects to ecstasy, but that are generally considered far less desirable and have more adverse side effects.

Ten years ago Sam would have swallowed them anyway – they could be a different batch. But at his age he wasn’t prepared to risk the headaches and vomiting pipes gave him after a far less pleas-urable experience than he enjoyed with MDMA. He knew it was pointless going back to the dealer. He also knew it was likely he would find himself there again if the local ecstasy scene stayed the way it was.

Despite the risks, recreational drug use continues to rise globally, with the illegal drug trade turning over hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Sam’s story is a common one faced by recreational users – by the time they hit the street, drugs are so far removed from the manufacturing source that it is impossible to determine how often they have been cut with foreign substances or even whether they are what they are advertised to be. A few years ago people began to wonder if there wasn’t an alternative to the traditional face-to-face drug deal. Where better to turn than the place where more and more people were spending the bulk of their time – the internet.

Online markets for illegal drugs were not a new phenomenon.

The late 1990s saw the emergence of private mailing lists, such as The Hive (which developed cult status) and the Research Chemical Mailing List. Many of the participants were part of the Cypherpunk movement that had commenced in the early nineties, in which expert cryptographers combined computer skills with their interest in philosophy and politics. Privacy of information was at the heart of their cause.

In the early 2000s, there was a group of sites selling research chemicals that became known as the ‘Web Tryp sites’, named after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation that eventually closed them down. There were also dozens of private email lists and web pages where information was traded clandestinely between members after trust was established. Although some information was available publicly to those who could find the sites, deals were made via private messages and emails between those in the loop. A drug user could access drugs this way only by word of mouth.

But the problem was always the same: money transfers over the web were traceable, and it was difficult to build trust with potential customers. Payment had to be made by credit card, cash in the mail or Western Union. There was no security for buyers or sellers from being scammed by each other, and anonymity could be easily compromised once the sites were discovered by the authorities.

The Silk Road story began at the end of 2010, when a young computer user and magic mushroom and marijuana aficionado imagined a market where willing buyers would be able to meet willing sellers and conduct their business in a safe, fair, violence-free environment. That business would be drugs and substances that were illegal in almost every jurisdiction in the world. He wanted to provide more than just a marketplace – he wanted to provide an environment of trust and exceptional customer service, based on the platform forged by popular legitimate e-commerce websites.

Three key emerging technologies could make this possible: Tor, a program that enabled anonymous web hosting and browsing; PGP encryption, which could scramble communications between users; and bitcoin, a borderless digital currency that existed only in cyberspace, which could be used to transfer funds with no identification of the parties required.

After considering and discarding other names, the budding drug czar settled on calling the website ‘Silk Road’ – a nod to the ancient Asian trade route that promoted cultural interaction between the East and the West by linking traders and merchants to buyers. The site’s symbol would be a green camel, camel trains being the common method of transport in trans-Asian trade.

The difference between Silk Road and previous online black markets was a system of consumer protection. This involved an escrow system, whereby rather than trust the seller implicitly, the buyer would send the payment to the owner of the website, who would hold on to it in custody until the buyer confirmed that they had received the goods as described. The buyer would then release the funds, from which the website would skim a commission before passing the payment to the seller. A further layer of protection came by the feedback system: the buyer could rate the seller out of five and make comments regarding speed, communication, packaging and security (‘stealth’), and quality of product.

This, of course, was nothing new in the world of online commerce. But in the world of black markets it was mind- blowingly revolutionary.

Silk Road’s owner was no computer infrastructure whiz. He struggled to figure out how to set the site up, and nearing the end of 2010 despaired that he still didn’t have a site, let alone a server. He asked questions on technical forums and tinkered with his idea until, eventually, he had the genesis of an anonymous online black market.

But first, the owner-operator of this new black market needed something to sell. He set up a lab in a cabin ‘off the grid’ where he produced several kilos of high-quality psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, a popular psychedelic. Now he had a marketplace and he had a product. It was time to find the customers. That wouldn’t be hard. The internet was rife with websites where like-minded people got together to talk about getting high.

Silk Road entered the world with little fanfare sometime in early 2011. Its beginnings remain hazy; many of its digital footprints have been eradicated from the web, whether by those involved in Silk Road or by the owners of the websites where the messages sat – it’s not always easy to tell.

The early evidence pointed to Silk Road testing the waters earlier on 4chan, an anonymous discussion group favoured by hackers and ‘carders’ (people who steal and use credit-card information for personal gain). Based on similar Japanese communities involved in manga and anime, 4chan is home to various subcul-tures and online activists, with users attracted by its anonymity and lack of censorship on posted content. It has been credited with being the genesis of hacktivist collective Anonymous.

‘I first saw Silk Road . . . on 4chan in December 2010,’ said Silk Road’s first-ever moderator, ‘Nomad Bloodbath’. ‘At that time I just saw it as another scam.’

The earliest hard evidence to be found of the genesis of Silk Road was a posting on Shroomery. Established in 1997, Shroomery is a leading website for information about magic mushrooms. The owner of Silk Road had magic mushrooms to sell so on 28 January 2011, a new forum member calling themselves ‘altoid’ registered on the Shroomery forums and wrote: I came across this website called Silk Road. It’s a Tor hidden service that claims to allow you to buy and sell anything online anonymously. I’m thinking of buying off it, but wanted to see if anyone here had heard of it and could recommend it.

I found it through silkroad420.wordpress.com, which, if you have a tor browser, directs you to the real site at http://tydgccykixpbu6uz.onion.

Let me know what you think . . .

The gobbledygook site address, ending in .onion, was an indica-tion that the site was one of those anonymously hosted by Tor. Sites hosted by Tor and other anonymity providers are colloquially known as the ‘dark web’. Sometime before April 2011, Silk Road’s address changed to ianxz6zefk72ulzz.onion. The WordPress site included a cheeky reference to ‘420’, slang for marijuana.

That was the only post ever made by altoid on the Shroomery forums, and the last time altoid logged on was 28 February 2011. The WordPress site the post referred to was a short, basic guide on how to access Silk Road. ‘This is not Silk Road, but you are close’ was the heading that greeted visitors. It explained how to download the technologies that would enable you to find and use the drug marketplace. Soon after-wards, WordPress closed the gateway and any attempts to access it returned an error message: ‘silkroad420.wordpress.com is no longer available. This site has been archived or suspended for a violation of our Terms of Service.’

Altoid also registered and posted in the bitcoin discussion forums at bitcointalk.org. Bitcoin at the time was a fledgling cryptocurrency, virtually worthless, and the forum’s members were debating whether it could be used to enable online commerce anonymously. Specifically, they were considering whether it was viable to facilitate buying and selling heroin. In a lengthy thread called ‘A Heroin Store’, on 29 January 2011 altoid (who had only registered that day) helpfully chimed in: What an awesome thread! You guys have a ton of great ideas.

Has anyone seen Silk Road yet? It’s kind of like an anonymous amazon.com. I don’t think they have heroin on there, but they are selling other stuff. They basically use bitcoin and tor to broker anonymous transactions. It’s at http://tydgccykixpbu6uz.onion. Those not familiar with Tor can go to silkroad420.wordpress.com for instructions on how to access the .onion site.Let me know what you guys think.

A suspicious reader might assume that altoid had more than a fan’s involvement in the site he or she was so keen to spruik. The only other early reference to Silk Road was from an apparent Silk Road seller calling himself ‘maxvendor’, who advertised his MDMA on topix.com, a website that allowed anonymous posting of news and gossip. ‘Buy from the Silk Road!’ the poster wrote on 12 February 2011 in a blatant advertisement for his ecstasy. ‘Ships stealth/vac sealed regular airmail. Pretty much the only guarantee in the online vending world going, also no way to prove you paid – all transactions are decentralized and anonymous.’ Maxvendor mentioned that payment would be made by bitcoin. Bitcoin is the preferred method of payment for goods and services on the dark web. Known as a ‘cryptocurrency’, it is a digital currency that uses cryptography for security. It exists only in cyberspace.

Online multiplayer games such as Second Life use a virtual currency that has value and can be exchanged for real things outside of the game. Bitcoin is similar, but far more sophisticated.

It wasn’t until 1 March 2011 that a thread brazenly and blatantly advertising Silk Road was started in the bitcoin forums by a user known as ‘silkroad’; the thread was called ‘Silk Road anonymous marketplace: feedback requested’. He stated: ‘Silk Road is into its third week after launch and I am very pleased with the results.

There are several sellers and buyers finding mutually agreeable prices, and as of today, 28 transactions have been made!’ The poster asked for feedback on his site, which he said had been in development for four months.

‘Thanks for this awesome idea, silkroad,’ wrote FTL_Ian, host of web-streaming talkback radio site Free Talk Live, on 17 March 2011. ‘I am so impressed, I promoted it on my national radio program tonight. Hope you don’t mind the publicity.’ On the program, he described Silk Road, the anonymity it provided and the escrow service, and cited the site as having 151 registered users, 38 listings and 28 transactions to date. The radio hosts enthused about the potential to remove violence from drug deals and other potential upsides of the site. ‘This is an example of something really useful.

This is a useful service. Allowing people to trade in whatever they want online completely anonymously . . . And you’ve got plausible deniability,’ they reported.

‘How cool!’ silkroad enthused. ‘How big is your audience?’

Silkroad’s thread grew to be one of the longest the Bitcointalk forum had ever seen. Members raised questions and expressed concerns that silkroad responded to with explanations of the technologies, the escrow system and his vision for a viable market.

Bitcointalk had a healthy membership made up of the kind of people who live for computers, technology and the new and innova-tive uses they can be put to. Many were drawn to Silk Road from a technical perspective, even if they had no interest in drugs.

For many, checking out the site for themselves was their first experience of the ‘dark web’. Host to all the sites that feature in contemporary horror movies or the cautionary tales of TV crime dramas, it is like the internet’s evil twin, unknown by many and accessed by few.

And drugs are about the least illegal things to be found inside the dark web.

Technology continues to empower buyers and extend the reach of sellers.

– Australian Crime Commission, Illicit Drug Data Report, 2011–2012

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