November 17, 2013, 11:00 am
Disruptions: A Digital Underworld Cloaked in Anonymity
By NICK BILTON
SAN FRANCISCO — So this is where they collared the man they call the Dread Pirate Roberts.
It’s up a flight of stone steps, past the circulation desk and the Romance stacks, over in Science Fiction, far corner.
On a sunny Tuesday in October, federal officers entered the public library in the Glen Park section of this city and arrested a young man who they say ran a vast Internet black market — an eBay of illegal drugs.
Their mark, Ross William Ulbricht, says he is not the F.B.I.’s Dread Pirate Roberts, the nom de guerre of the mastermind behind the marketplace, Silk Road. And the facts, his lawyer says, will prove that.
However this story plays out, Silk Road already stands as a tabloid monument to old-fashioned vice and new-fashioned technology. Until the website was shut down last month, it was the place to score, say, a brick of cocaine with a few anonymous strokes on a computer keyboard. According to the authorities, it greased $1.2 billion in drug deals and other crimes, including murder for hire.
That this story intruded here, at a public library in a nice little neighborhood, says a lot about the dark corners of the Internet. Glen Park isn’t the gritty Tenderloin over the hills, or Oakland or Richmond out in East Bay. And that is precisely the point. The Dark Web, as it is known, is everywhere and nowhere, and it’s growing fast.
No sooner was the old Silk Road shut down than a new, supposedly improved Silk Road popped up. Other online bazaars for illegal guns and drugs are thriving.
And the Dread Pirate Roberts — the old one, a new one, who knows? — is back, taunting the authorities. (The pseudonym is a reference to a character in the film “The Princess Bride” who turns out to be not one man but rather many men passing down the title.)
“It took the F.B.I. two and a half years to do what they did,” the Dread Pirate Roberts wrote last week on the new Silk Road site. “But four weeks of temporary silence is all they got.”
So catch us if you can, the Dread Pirate is saying. The new Silk Road has overhauled its security and “marks the dawn of a brand new era for hidden services,” he wrote.
The question is, can anyone really stamp out the Dread Pirates? Like the rest of the Internet, the Dark Web is being shaped and reshaped by technological innovation.
First, there was Tor, short for The Onion Router, a suite of software and network computers that enables online anonymity. Edward J. Snowden used Tor to leak government secrets, and the network has been important for dissidents in places like Iran and Egypt. Of course, drug dealers and gunrunners prefer anonymity, too.
Then there is bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that has been skyrocketing in value lately. Bitcoin is basically virtual cash — anonymous, untraceable currency stuffed into a mobile wallet. The kind of thing that comes in handy when buying contraband.
It’s hardly news that there are bad actors on the Internet. People have been hacking this and stealing that for years. But the growth of the Dark Web is starting to attract attention in Washington. Senator Thomas R. Carper, the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, warned recently that the authorities seemed to be playing Whac-a-Mole with websites like Silk Road. As soon as they hit one, up pops another. This, the senator said, “underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly.”
The F.B.I. declined to discuss the Silk Road case. But some security experts wonder how authorities can effectively police the Walter Whites of the web. Matthew D. Green, a research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, says buying illegal drugs online is now easier than buying them on the street corner. Mr. Green says that Tor is incredibly difficult to crack, but that what is really driving all this is digital cash like bitcoin.
“And cash, in small sums, is completely untraceable,” he said.
Hsinchun Chen, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Arizona, told me that the situation was getting worse, and that there had been a rapid rise in the last few years. Mr. Chen has done research on the Dark Web and found that programmers use a vast network to trade software for drugs and other contraband. Many of these sites are set up so they can be replicated quickly if authorities take them offline.
“This underground has grown so widespread in recent years that entire international virtual communities and black markets have been spawned across the Internet to help facilitate trade between cyber criminals scattered in different parts of the world,” Mr. Chen said.
How many Silk Roads are out there? No one really knows. Silk Road claimed to have one million registered users worldwide. Another site, Black Market Reloaded, advertises illegal semiautomatic handguns and AR-15-style rifles. A third, Atlantis, specializes in prescription pills. And after the original Silk Road was shut down, Sheep Marketplace, which sells weapons, drugs and counterfeit documents, quickly rose in popularity, according to Forbes.
Parmy Olson, the author of “We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency,” said that it was difficult to spot the criminals and troublemakers of the web in the real world. The bad guys on the Internet do not look like the bad guys we know, she said.
After Jake Davis, the young hacker known as Topiary, was arrested in the Shetland Islands of Scotland in 2011, Ms. Olson flew over to meet him. Mr. Davis, who worked for Anonymous, LulzSec and other groups, eventually pleaded guilty to attacks on several sites.
He was nothing like she expected. “He was just a scruffy and shy teenager,” Ms. Olson said. And there are plenty of people like him — or the Dread Pirate Roberts — ready to step in and fill their shoes.