Closing Silk Road 2.0 Isn't Going to Stop Anyone from Selling Drugs Online
Targeting deep web marketplaces is like an endless, expensive game of whack-a-mole.
Any coders out there fancy a new job? Working from home, you'll choose your own hours and, to a certain extent, set your own wages. It's a lean and agile start-up – minimal staff, operating in an incredibly hostile legislative environment, with hundreds of dogged, highly experienced cops working overtime to parade your sorry scalp on primetime.
The rewards, though, for running the latest iteration of the dark web's most notorious drugs bazaar, The Silk Road, are proportionately high: £200,000 tax-free a month. The right candidate will have a vainglorious streak of political libertarianism and an enormous, misguided sense of self-belief. Oh, and another tip – if you do end up becoming the world's biggest illegal Bitcoin businessman, it's probably best not to go splashing your virtual currency on expensive electric cars.
This was one mistake of Blake Benthall, the 26-year-old "rocket scientist" and "Bitcoin dreamer" who's in the frame for running Silk Road 2.0, which was shut down yesterday by the FBI. Allegedly helming the site under the pseudonym "Defcon", Benthall reportedly cashed out £170,000 worth of Bitcoin and put down a £45,000 deposit on a Tesla Model S – a luxury electric car worth £80,000 – in December last year. Has he not seen Goodfellas?
Mind you, I see where the temptation arose. According to the criminal complaint filed against Benthall – a Californian with facial hair, a floppy fringe and a fairly awful singing voice (HT @RasmusMunks) – the site was clearing $8 million (around £5 million) in sales a month from its 150,000 users – figures any other start-up would kill for. Commission ran at about £190,000 a month, according to the FBI.
If Benthall did do it, how did he think he'd get away with it? There's something strangely solipsistic in the hacker mindset. It's not clear what comes first: the isolated working environment with only code for company, or the outlook that finds such work enjoyable.
What is certain is that most people, after the shuttering of the original Silk Road last year – and the intricately detailed criminal case against alleged owner Ross Ulbricht – would not believe themselves smarter than the FBI's Christopher Tarbell, who busted Ulbricht and now works as a private consultant for a cyber-security firm. Of course, the "Defcon" persona that Benthall is said to have operated under speaks to the self-assured way he allegedly went about his business.
He's now facing one count of conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking (at least a 10-stretch), one count of conspiring to commit computer hacking (five years more), one fake ID charge (another 15 years) and one money-laundering charge, which could get him another 20 years in the can if the judge is feeling uncharitable. The poor, poor bastard.
Long-term, this bust makes no difference. A new .onion website will be online in a few days, selling drugs to anyone who wants them. In fact, there are dozens online already. There are even sites for individual vendors, which you can only use via personal introduction. You can now buy enough bulk LSD direct from the chemist to dose an entire festival. Kilos of MDMA can be yours by next-day delivery. People are growing weed to order.
The appearance of an online trade in illegal drugs will be seen, I believe, as a pivotal moment in legal history. Because what will police do when the market inevitably grows and we end up with drug-related criminality on an amazon.com scale?
TheGrugq, a renowned computer security specialist, told me recently that a whole new sector of organised criminals are now involved in the online drug market.
"What I've been seeing is that a lot of the 'next gen' guys are not technologists [because, obviously, if you're a skilled technologist you make money by gambling on startups, not risking jail time]," says theGrugq. "They're using outsourcing sites to get an unwitting third-party developer to build the site for them. They are compartmenting themselves from the infrastructure component of the business and focusing on, presumably, the capitalisation, marketing and so on."
This game has been going on since the net first flickered into life. The first online transaction a human made was for a bag of grass, and it's Silk Road that's responsible for truly monetising prohibition. But Silk Road 2.0 was the absolute proof-of-concept: many people want to buy and sell drugs online, and there are fortunes to be made.
For some, it's just fun or convenient. For others – like one user who told me that the consistent delivery of high-quality gear took him away from the constant temptation of street dealers, therefore helping him control his smack and crack habit – it can be a lifesaver.
"It means I can live a normal life, go to work and avoid all the financial, social and health problems that come with drug addiction," he said. "I'm able to be a responsible, contributing member of my family and the wider community around me, instead of being a burden and a social pariah, costing society through crime and treatment."
We might laugh snidely at the alleged site operators' adherence to the slightly incoherent principles of Agorism, or their beards, or whatever, but there's a chance these gung-ho hippy idealists – the latest of whom even repaid thousands of users millions of dollars following a hack – are actually some of the most forward-thinking and fundamentally revolutionary agitators of the 21st century.
Think about it: what have you ever actually done to end the war on drugs?
Mike Power's book, Drugs Unlimited, The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High, is out now in the US.
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