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No, the Feds Are Not Behind the New Silk Road

Silk Road 2.0 is not an inside job. But that doesn't mean all the world's Feds are not watching it closely.

by Brian Anderson
Nov 16 2013, 2:00pm
Photo via Flickr/CC.

You see it peppered over forums frequented by the deep web's faithful: "LE". That's shorthand for "law enforcement", the specter of which has risen from the rubble of the late Silk Road marketplace to staggering new highs. This is spurring a good deal of discussion as to whether the new Silk Road was set up, and is perhaps even being run by the Feds, by LE. Users and curious onlookers alike want to know: Is Silk Road 2.0 an inside job? 

It would make for one hell of a screenplay if it is. Too bad it is not.

For one thing, it would be illegal. Think about it. If the Feds really had the gall to engineer an unregulated, untaxed commercial marketplace along the lines of the (new) Silk Road, they would do so knowing full well that they're enabling untold scores of drug makers, dealers, and users alike to cook up, transport, peddle, and willingly ingest the very substances that they, LE, currently deem illegal. 

And no matter that there's good reason to believe a Fed-helmed deep web bazaar wouldn't be just illegal drugs, precusor chemicals, and murder-for-hire services. (It would be the wet dream par excellance of the DEA, the CIA, and every other player in the alphabet soup of anti-drugs agencies to set this sort of trap. Does anyone actually think LE wouldn't open it up to all manner of services? It would keep their lights on.) As I've reported, it can be argued "that various buyer transaction fees and those fees that go along with signing on as a deep-web vendor" of items as varyingly innocuous as they are perfectly legal—rarity tobacco, military surplus, olive oil, whatever—may in today's regulatory frameworks be seen as doing little but aiding and abetting criminal outfits. And the US government doesn't like aiding and abetting criminal outfits, at least on paper it says it doesn't. 

If the Feds facilitated the new Silk Road, they'd be breaking their own rules. Plain and simple. 

Which is not to say that hasn't ever happened. It happens all the time. It's safe to say that it's happening somewhere, somehow, right now. If anything, it's as if the US government codifies many of its laws for the express purpose of eventually breaking them. If it got caught with its pants down, baiting unwitting vendors and buyers to its very own "Silk Road" before rounding everyone up, the US would no doubt face immense legal blowback from both allies and frenemy superpowers. Not like that's ever stopped America from playing it both ways, or anything. 

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Thing is, this is the US government we're talking about. Bloated. Clumsy. Full of crotchety white dudes. Perpetually "shutdown". Sure, the Feds grabbed headlines last month when they managed to snare Ross Ulbricht, the alleged founder of the now-defunct Silk Road. And true, at least one senator thinks the online front of the war on drugs should do away with the whole whack-a-mole thing. We know the Feds are capable of busting up corners of the deep web. There is no arguing that. 

But this is the same government that shelled out more cash for a tragically busted healthcare registration site than the combined total spent by Facebook and Twitter to build their respective sites. The combined total. And you mean to tell me the Feds have the technological wherewithal to build out an illegal marketplace at the required scale and sophistication needed to keep the gears turning long enough to net enough "bad guys" to make it time well spent? And all while keeping the sting under wraps? It's just not possible. That sort of undertaking is just too complex. Even if American LE called on, say, the UK for some help getting the job done, more cooks in the kitchen would just slow down the whole sad affair.

And don't even get me started on how auhorities would go about catching everyone who not only bought drugs off the sting site but who then, presumably, planned to take said drugs. It would require on-site seizure of the goods, a dream that would be snuffed out by drop addresses. It's Deep Web 101—have your drugs delivered someplace other than your home—and the Feds know it. Besides, they would be under intense time constraints to catch the user in the act. Wait a year—hell, wait a few hours—and the stuff will likely be long gone. People buy drugs off the deep web to get stoned, not to fill out their spice racks.

So, no. The Silk Road 2.0 is not an inside job. The Feds are not behind the new marketplace—or any of the illegal online shops cropping up in a still-fractured deep web, for that matter. 

Of course, just because they can't create the Silk Road 2.0 doesn't mean they aren't watching the Silk Road 2.0, which went live last week. They are. Hence the "LE-inside job" chatter on deep web boards and fourms. There's a lot at stake, then, for whomever is behind the new Silk Road.   

Guardian reporter Mike Power recently caught up with the Dread Pirate Roberts, the pseudonymous head of the new Silk Road. Why is DPR doing this? Power asked. Is it all a political act? Does he not worry about a life sentence in Supermax? 

"Every man fears high-security prison for the rest of their lives, of that there is no doubt," DPR told Power. "But I am willing to do so if it is beneficial to our cause, and therefore while I do not wish to end up there, I think the benefits of doing this will outweigh the costs."

@thebanderson