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Blake Benthall, one of the administrators of the shuttered Silk Road 2.0 dark web drug marketplace and who went by the handle Defcon, may only be prosecuted for tax crimes in exchange for cooperating with authorities, according to a Department of Justice document obtained by Motherboard.The news signals the first real insight into Benthall's fate after his arrest and the seizure of Silk Road 2.0 in 2014. The site appeared shortly after the FBI closed the original Silk Road and arrested its creator Ross Ulbricht.
Using the Tor anonymity network to protect the location of its servers as well as its users, Silk Road 2.0 provided drug dealers a relatively secure platform to sell heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and a wealth of other illegal narcotics as well as other items such as fake passports. During its heyday, the site processed sales of around $400,000 a day, according to academic research.
The FBI seized Silk Road 2.0 as part of Operation Onymous, in which the agency used information gleaned by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) to help deanonymize users on the Tor network. The FBI subpoenaed SEI researchers for the IP addresses of dark web sites they had uncovered. After that, the FBI arrested Benthall, a San Francisco-based software developer who had previously worked for SpaceX.As part of operating Silk Road 2.0, Benthall was charged with narcotics trafficking conspiracy; conspiracy to transfer fraudulent identification documents; conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and money laundering conspiracy, according to court records. Conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking carries a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison and a maximum of life imprisonment. Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison for his role in creating the original Silk Road, which included narcotics trafficking, engaging in a continued criminal enterprise, and money laundering conspiracy.
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Benthall likely won't face those sorts of sentences, the document obtained by Motherboard indicates."If the defendant fully complies with the understandings specified in this Agreement, he will not be further prosecuted criminally by this Office for any crimes, except for criminal tax violations," relating to operation of Silk Road 2.0, the document, signed by an Assistant United States Attorney, reads. The document adds that Benthall won't be prosecuted for his personal use of small quantities of hash "gummies" either.The document says that if Benthall fully complies, "no testimony or other information given by him (or any other information directly or indirectly derived therefrom) will be used against him in any criminal tax prosecution." It adds that he shall file accurate tax returns for 2013 and 2014—the years he helped run Silk Road 2.0—and that he will pay back taxes due to the Internal Revenue Service.The last entry in the docket of Benthall's case dates from 2015. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, which handled Benthall's prosecution, declined to comment. One of Benthall's attorneys also declined to comment.Benthall's path through the justice system stands in stark contrast to others who worked on Silk Road 2.0 but who did not cooperate with authorities. In 2016, the U.S. sentenced Brian Farrell, who went by the handle DoctorClu and who moderated the site's forums among other tasks, to eight years in prison for drug charges. Last month Benthall's co-administrator and the original creator of Silk Road 2.0, Thomas White, was sentenced to five years in prison in Liverpool, England.Subscribe to our new cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.