The founder of online illegal drug marketplace the Silk Road has been sentenced to life in prison in the US.Federal prosecutors said Ross Ulbricht's website, hosted on the hidden "dark web", sold more than $200m (£131m) worth of drugs anonymously.
The 31-year-old was found guilty in New York of charges including conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, money laundering and computer hacking.
The site was shut down in 2013 after police arrested Ulbricht.
In February he was convicted of operating the site for nearly three years from 2011.
What was the Silk Road?
The Silk Road took its name from the historic trade routes spanning Europe, Asia and parts of Africa.
The Silk Road took its name from the historic trade routes spanning Europe, Asia and parts of Africa.
It achieved notoriety through media reports and online chatter. But users could only access the site through Tor - a system that lets people use the web without revealing who they are or which country they are in.
Tor was created by the US government to help provide activists with anonymity but is now often used to mask illegal transactions.
Illegal drugs such as heroin could be bought on the Silk Road using the virtual currency Bitcoin, which is also hard to monitor, but the site also offered other products such as hacking equipment and stolen passports.
Court documents from the FBI said the site had just under a million registered users, but investigators said they did not know how many were active.
How FBI closed in on suspect Ross Ulbricht
'Carefully planned'Sentencing Ulbricht - who has two college degrees - District Judge Katherine Forrest said he was "no better a person than any other drug dealer".
She said the site had been his "carefully planned life's work".
"There must be no doubt that lawlessness will not be tolerated," she added.
Ulbricht had expressed remorse and had written to the judge begging to not receive a life sentence.
"I know you must take away my middle years," he wrote, "but please leave me my old age."
Before the sentence was announced, Ulbricht told the judge he was not greedy.
"I've essentially ruined my life and broken the hearts of every member of my family and my closest friends,'' he said. "I'm not a self-centred sociopathic person that was trying to express some inner badness. I do love freedom. It's been devastating to lose it.''
But the judge said the sentence would show copycats there are "very serious consequences".
Ulbricht's lawyer said he was "disappointed tremendously''.
Digital footprintThe Silk Road was only accessible on the dark web, a part of the internet that requires specialist software to access.
Users of the site used online currency Bitcoin to purchase drugs such as heroin, cocaine and LSD.
Prosecutors say that six people who died from overdoses bought drugs via the site and that such untraceable deals earned Ulbricht at least $18m.
In the months leading up to Ulbricht's arrest at a public library in San Francisco in 2013, investigators undertook a painstaking process of piecing together his digital footprint, according to court documents.
The search started with work from "Agent-1" who went through pages dating back to January 2011.
He found a post titled "Anonymous market online?", in which a user nicknamed Altoid started publicising the Silk Road.
Records found the blog had been set up by an anonymous user who had hidden their location. But Altoid also appeared in a discussion site about virtual currency, bitcointalk.org.
Months later, in October, Altoid appeared again - but made a slip-up. In a post seeking an IT expert with knowledge of Bitcoin, he asked people to contact him via email@example.com.
As people reflect on the life sentence handed down to the convicted mastermind behind Silk Road, many questions arise, including: Why would he risk setting up an unregulated online marketplace? Was the investigation leading to his arrest legal? And in this first-of-its-kind scenario, is his punishment fair?
These are the very issues a new documentary, directed by Alex Winter and having its premiere Sunday on Epix, seeks to explore.
Ross Ulbricht, 31, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after giving a final, tearful plea for leniency in a U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan on Friday. In February, he was found guilty on seven counts linked to his creating and operating Silk Road, including drug trafficking, engaging in a criminal enterprise and money laundering. When the authorities shut down Silk Road in 2013, it had hosted more than 1.5 million purchases and $1.2 billion worth of business over the course of nearly three years.
Deep Web, which takes its name from the online market’s hidden host, has been criticized for making the case for Ulbricht. Indeed, the film’s exploration of his guilt is superficial and there is an abundance of character witnesses singing his praises. But Winter suggests these concessions are necessary in order to draw the public into the complicated debates surrounding the case.
“It isn’t a piece of journalism,” Winter tells Newsweek when probed on the film’s possible biases. He says showing Ulbricht parents’ emotional pleas provides the average person with an entry point into the technologically complex case. The film explains “how his mom and dad had found themselves, from not being able to use their iPhone, to becoming experts in digital activism,” he says.
Ulbricht’s alleged motivation for Silk Road was to create a market outside of the government’s purview. “I believed at the time that people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else,” he wrote in a heart-felt letter to the judge before sentencing. But the prosecution emphasized that people were hurt, highlighting the drug overdose deaths of some who bought narcotics from the site, as well as evidence suggesting Ulbricht ordered and paid for murders to protect his operation.
In Winter’s depiction, however, Silk Road wasn’t Ulbricht’s creation. Instead, it was the sum of like-minded people who were attracted by a similar product: drugs. “Silk Road wasn’t created and run by an individual. These technologies never are,” Winter says. “You had this sort of libertarian, crypto-anarchic faction that was very interested in creating a free market and...you also had people...[who] were very interested in combating the drug war...and then you had straight up criminality.”
Not only does Winter reject the idea that the final Silk Road product was Ulbricht’s doing, but his investigation linking Ulbricht to its creation is shallow. The film’s most direct implications of his guilt include him ordering fake IDs and having his laptop seized while logged in to Silk Road.
“The movie isn’t trying to make a case for or against Ross,” says Winter. Just as the parents’ passion can rope audiences into the bigger discussions, a clear demonstration of Ulbricht’s guilt could push them away. He says: “The point of the movie is to say that these are the issues surrounding this case—let’s unpack them.”
Though the concepts may seem unapproachable to the non-tech savvy, the saga of Silk Road’s rise and fall exposes a new frontier, one yet to be fully addressed by dedicated laws. In a time when it is almost impossible to participate in modern society without using a computer or leaving a digital trail, many are unknowingly perched, exposed, on this frontier.
One of the most contentious parts of the case, which the film mentions, is whether the FBI overreached when it gained access to Silk Road’s server in Iceland. The site used Tor, a type of software designed to hide the server’s physical location. But the way law enforcement describes it, agents essentially stumbled upon Silk Road’s IP address by playing with the site’s login page.
Experts interviewed in Deep Web say this makes little technical sense and a part of the story must be missing. One theory is that the FBI hacked into Silk Road, but if it did so without a warrant, that could constitute an illegal search—a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
“We should be having a public conversation about how search and seizures work in the digital age,” says Winter, something that has yet to happen on a grand scale. Last year, for instance, the Justice Department began leveraging a little-known committee to alter the way warrants are issued. The change would allow the bureau to obtain warrants to hack computers even if their locations or the identities of their owners were unknown.
Because judges are generally restricted to issuing warrants to the government for searches within their jurisdictions, some may consider this change to be a privacy overreach. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that such a rule change would assume that it’s acceptible for the FBI to hack remotely into computers using any means at its disposal—which could degrade cybersecurity and make the digital space less secure for everyone.
Just as one assumes privacy in one's own home, is there a place in the virtual space for people to act freely, unencumbered by the government’s watchful eye? Which tools and protocols are appropriate for probing into Americans’ online lives? And just because Ulbricht’s was a first-of-its-kind case, should he have been given “a lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum” of 20 years, as the prosecution requested?
Deep Web won’t provide any definitive answers to these questions, but if you look past its partiality, you’ll likely find even more pressing questions.
Ulbricht, Who Wanted to Empower Others to Be Free, Will Spend His Own Life in Prison
Judge Katherine Forrest of Manhattan’s U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York was the overseer of the case and offered no leniency to Ulbricht after his final statement in which he told the court, "I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age." She handed him a life sentencing.
Ulbricht, who says he originally designed the Silk Road so individuals would be “free to buy and sell whatever they wanted" will have no chance at parole and no option for the death penalty, making the sentence a most harsh one.
The Silk Road was founded as a bastion of liberation, a digital marketplace where one could exercise freedom, as long as they did not encroach on another's. For DRP and Ulbricht, the Silk Road was more than an underground trading community, it was a revolution in the making.
Perhaps guided by his early success, DPR once wrote, “Every single transaction is a victory” in taking down the “thieving, murderous” state. DPR was a millionaire many times over, but those early successes, it seems, were for a greater revolution. Freedom after all, requires financing.
The Silk Road servers were originally compromised when FBI agents revealed reveal the true IP addresses of the site, which were hosted in a remote data center outside Reykjavik, Iceland. From there, the federal agents found Ulbricht in a San Francisco public library, literally with “fingers at the keyboard” and logged into the admin account of the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts.
The prosecution in the case estimated that the Silk Road handled some US$200 million in drug transactions, all of which were made with bitcoin. On July 21, 2013, when the location of the site's servers were first compromised, Dread Pirate Robert's accounts were receiving some 3,237 transfers per day, totalling US$19,459, which would provide an annualized income of more than $7 million.
Ulbricht's defense team will seek an appeal for the case, arguing recent revelations that two DEA agents involved in the investigation of Silk Road stole millions of dollars worth of bitcoin from the site and may have blackmailed Ulbricht by selling him law enforcement information. The defense was not permitted to use this information in any way at trial.
Although the defense team of the case argued that the Silk Road was a blessing in disguise that could reduce drug cartel organizations, Judge Forrester made clear that she found "Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its … creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous." In his final pre-sentencing, Ulbricht wrote:
“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives … to have privacy and anonymity, I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”
Although the information was not brought to trial, investigators believe Ulbricht ordered at least two hits on former Silk Road employees, which were never carried to resolution.
In response to the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lawyer, Joshua Dratel, claimed that previous trials for individuals who pleaded guilty to being involved in the Silk Road received sentences of only 17 months. Ulbricht, on the other hand — for exercising his constitutional rights — was given life. Dratel said this was both unfair and unjust.
Silk Road gave the blueprint for anonymous marketplaces on the Dark Web. Such websites continue to open the floodgates for an "anything goes" type of business model. Despite pervasive law enforcement crackdowns and rampant thefts, product listings in Dark Web marketplaces grew some 37 percent in the last year.
Whether we will look back on Ulbricht as a heroic lawbreaker in a similar manner to Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Ulbricht will be spending a very long time within the clutches of the law enforcement he sought to elude with the Silk Road.
Op-Ed: Why Ulbricht Needed to Get LifeWhich side are you on?
Whilst life is a spectrum of grey, rather than being black or white, formative years can, in some instances, give us a clue as to which side we’ll end up being on or who we’ll be. There are plenty of kids who enjoyed reading and became writers or lawyers, and others who enjoyed vinegar and baking soda volcanoes to such an extent that we end doctors, lab techs, pharmacists (or perhaps, with a couple of years of organic science behind them, and looking at a way to retire early, meth cooks). Your path may’ve been chosen for you, coming from a family of brick layers or bakers. Some of us grew up with something of a white knight complex. Perhaps a military movie’s leading man or woman in uniform made an impression on us during our teens, perhaps a cop let us hold their hat (or loaded gun) as a child. Others found themselves consistently rooting for the bad guy; maybe we really liked the idea of being Tony Montana, a Bond villain, or Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons, for as long as we can remember. Most grow out of it and lead normal lives. Maybe it was at the careers fair, maybe it was upon getting into college, but people’s paths change. Some will learn about it in a practical manner, only to find the drudgery of policing, or the various pitfalls of full time crime, are far removed from what media had us believe. For those who did take it further, perhaps it was in the first week of the academy, or during one’s first visit to central booking. There’s a certain mystique to playing cops and robbers on an epic scale, and some people persist with it.
Cops and robbers on steroids
The realities of the lives that those who traverse the far ends of the spectrum of the social contract and play both amongst and beyond the norms codified into society’s laws – the dogged investigators, and those wholesale violators, who aren’t merely cogs in the wheel of organizations, but are the driving forces – can be very cold, and very hard. When you go from street level drug dealer to regional organization boss to a national, or indeed, international facilitator of crime, the stakes go up exponentially each time you ratchet up, in terms of the rewards, the risks, and the pressure you can expect. I know a good many on both sides of the fence in a professional capacity, and have witnessed the interplay in and out of court when all the games which precipitate a court battle have concluded. Some hate each others’ guts and take everything personally; guys who like to talk themselves up, either on the violator’s side, or the investigator’s side, are part of the game, and it rarely does the relevant side any favours as far as the opposition’s opinion. Ulbricht went so far as to court the mainstream media, so he had very much thrown down the gauntlet to his silent pursuers. Some pretend the other party doesn’t exist, and some get along in the professional context, understanding that each has their role, and that its not personal. But we’re not talking about the finer points of court room etiquette and professional (dis?)courtesy. Ulbricht, in his alter ego as DPR, issued a major challenge to the world at large, and in due course, that challenge was met. He paid the price of admission, and took the ride, all the way to its conclusion.
Some follow their dreams, and there is a price to be paid.
If you have a dream, the bigger it is, the harder you’ll work, and the more you’ll sacrifice to make it reality. You don’t become a world-class athlete overnight; you will need to sacrifice and sacrifice some more to get there, both the opportunities that you are foregoing now, and aspects of the future while you’re at it. Even if you get to the apex of a sport in your own country, you don’t win an Olympic gold medal unless you work harder than everyone else (unless you’re name’s Steven Bradbury. It seems that Ross Ulbricht had a dream, and he followed it all the way. What he conceived in his mind and how it played out are probably somewhat divergent, but he got the attention of the senate, and was targetted as the figurehead of a cutting-edge, technology facilitated criminal threat which had not been seen before on a similar scale. And now, having been found guilty by a jury, as of Friday, he’s doing two life sentences as a result.
The problem is for LE is, running a DNM is an achievable dream
We’ve all seen it happen again and again since the original Silk Road – market after market has stepped up to fill the vacuum, some more resilient than others. Why? Because this ain’t the Mafia – A proficient coder with a touch of egomania, an unbridled capitalist bent, mixed with a dash of ruthlessness or apathy toward the laws they’re breaking, can acquire the remaining skillsets needed to become the next DPR with an ease which one does not see in the traditional criminal hierarchy. If you have the capacity to code and maintain a TOR site, you could, in this day and age, potentially be the next DPR. The dizzying highs of facilitating international drug trafficking, the intoxicating power of ordering the deaths of those who cross you, could all be yours without the years it would take you to approach it from the traditional pathways. He created the organization anonymously, and in (what at the time seemed to be) a manner beyond the reach of law enforcement.
One of the primary, underlying motivations of Ulbricht’s two life sentences is a concept known in law as ‘general deterrence’ – essentially, “kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, seek to intimidate others against pursuing a similar course of action. Without spending hours philosophically debating the federal sentencing guidelines and the submissions made by both sides as to how sentencing should have played out for Ross Ulbricht, there is one point which is undeniable. Whether you regard Silk Road as a resounding demonstration of the fallacy which is the war on drugs, a harbinger of doom which may well have facilitated your innocent children’s descent into Reefer Madnes had it been left unchecked, or just a solid place to source your MDMA, Ulbricht achieved what he achieved as the ‘kingpin’ of a ‘drug empire’ (do forgive the hyperbole) in an astonishingly short timeframe, and with limited specific expertise or skillsets. No multiple years spent as a foot soldier, dealing on the street, in a larger organization, looking to rise through the ranks and get indoors. None of the ducking and weaving from competitors and law enforcement, which results in a high rate of attrition through incarceration or death.
General deterrence winning the day
Can two life sentences for this kind of conduct be justified on this basis? If we were ignoring the various other aspects considered in the Ulbricht trial, it wouldn’t be as quite easy to say yes – obviously, a good deal of other materials came out at trial, the spurious murders for hire all being a big part of the story. Right now, law enforcement world wide is up against a wholly new animal, and the aim is to disrupt all those who issue a challenge, and put Ulbricht’s head on a pike is part of the game plan; for just as easily as you too maybe the next DPR, the Government would like you to pause and consider that, you too, may just as easily spend the rest of your life in a federal penitentiary