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Silk Road Creator Sentenced to Life: Says Site Was Harm Reduction

Silk Road Creator Sentenced to Life: Says Site Was Harm Reduction

Author: Justin Mckibben

Ross Ulbricht, AKA “Dead Pirate Roberts” (DPR) is a name I’ve written about several times before. He is the founder of the original Silk Road, and for those of you who have no idea what the means, it is the massively successful online drug marketplace referred to as the ‘Amazon.com of Drugs’ that was taken down a while back and has since been mimicked and replaced with other online markets, that have also been shut down and replaced in a seemingly endless cycle of greed measured in bitcoin and gigbytes.

This past Friday, May 29th 2015 the cycle may have ended permanently for Ulbricht, as he was in a New York courtroom claiming he was a changed man, looking for some semblance of redemption, or at least a little leeway, but this time there was no fire-wall or spy-ware to protect him. Not too many people are buying what the defense team for Ulbricht was trying to sell, as their newest attempt to lessen his prison time was on the grounds of “harm reduction.”

Reducing Harm?

Ulbricht’s legal team asked the judge to consider Silk Road as a place that significantly reduced the danger of drug use to the user on the grounds that it created a format where several factors associated with the drug trade were replaced with a system which let customers have control over their deals in safety.

Ulbricht’s lawyer Joshua Dratel stated in the filing:

“..Transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner.”

Dratel described Silk Road as if it was a unique application of harm reduction, which is typically associated with needle exchange programs and anti-overdose kits being distributed as a method of reducing the problems associated with drug use on the street.

It isn’t entirely untrue, but even the top 4 factors that could be considered to be relatable to harm reduction, when you take a closer look, could be considered a little contrived.

  1. Less Danger?

For anyone who has ever bought drugs, there is obviously some element of danger commonly associated with these transactions. Of course it depends of what you buy and where, from who. Buying heroin off the corner could easily get you robbed, even assaulted or injured. So you are reducing some harm by purchasing it via the web and having it shipped to your house.

On the flip side- just because it is a ‘safer’ drug deal because the environment is less likely to get you robbed or ripped off doesn’t mean it is harm reduction, right? It’s still a drug deal. Spreading it out over the servers doesn’t justify it. The judge shot this logic down, saying:

“Silk Road was about fulfilling demand….about creating demand.”

In other words there would be no harm to reduce without Silk Road creating the dark web drug den and supplying drugs.

Harm reduction is typically about giving people safer means by which to do the drugs they are already buying, not providing them easier access to the substance itself.

Then there is the fact that even though the last stop in the chain of transactions was a little safer, it doesn’t mean that the cartels trafficking drugs, the conditions where they are grown or made, or the enterprises being funded by drug money (such as ISIS or other terrorist groups) are any ‘safer’ in the process. There is still plenty of risk to go around.

  1. Quality Control?

Then there is the idea that Silk Road was harm reduction because it created its own level of quality control, introducing several components that seemed to make dealers accountable. The digital drug expo featured Ebay style ratings and review boards where crowd-sourced information about drugs and dealers allowed customers to feel safer from the danger of buying tampered with products.

Thus the community trusted the dealers being logged and recorded as quality business men.

But again, all this does is feed into the demand. It doesn’t really reduce anything but a drug users doubts that they will get what they want for the right Bitcoin (hacker money).

  1. Safety Tips?

This one actually makes some sense. Silk Road featured crowd-funded advice about drug use, including:

  • How to ‘fix’ drugs properly (how to use certain drugs certain ways)
  • What to expect on your first time using
  • What to do in case of overdose

There is no doubt that this could be potentially lifesaving information for people committed to illegal drug use.

Some forums included medical advice from physicians themselves. Ulbricht even tried to keep Silk Road ‘safe’ by paying $500 a week to the infamous Dr. X, who was himself a self-identified drug user who regularly answered questions from users about the harms or merits of taking both legal and illegal drugs.

Dr. X’s real name is Dr. Fernando Caudevilla and he described this aspect as harm reduction.

Considering that this element of the site was designed to keep users safe by providing medical information and allowing for open communication about drug use, it can run parallel to the strategies other legitimate harm reduction campaigns use to keep users informed and medically supported.

And yet… not everyone felt it was effective enough. Emotional statements at the hearing came from the parents of drug users who had overdosed and died from drugs purchased from the Silk Road, many called for the longest sentence the law would allow.

  1. Ethics

The aims of Silk Road were initially governed by a strict code of ethics. Early visitors of the site lobbied DPR to allow complete freedom for any transaction, but Ulbricht was adamant about his principal… at least at first. He stated:

“Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else.”

This meant no sales of a more sinister nature, such as:

  • Weapons
  • Child pornography
  • Stolen goods
  • Fraudulent degrees or IDs

Though this was a firm founding ideal, it appears most of these items were for sale when the site was finally shut down.

The Judgment

At the end of the day Ulbricht was found guilty last month of 7 offenses he was charged with, including a “kingpin” charge that puts the 31-year-old hacker from Texas up there with mafia dons and drug cartel leaders.

Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years, but the judge sentenced him to life in prison… without the possibility of parole.

In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the dark web hot spot. As the judge passed down the sentence she said:

“You are no better a person than any other drug dealer.”

Of course his defense team is already preparing for their appeal, and this is surely one story we will be hearing about for a while.

In my own opinion: The very idea that they are trying to call this harm reduction is just a little (or a lot) absurd. Creating a dark web market of drug dealers to push raw opium, various illicit plants and pills for massive amounts of money, while claiming to be beyond the laws of the nation, and even trying to pay tens of thousands for the murder of half a dozen people is not exactly the ideal model of harm reduction.

Real harm reduction can help a lot of people. Drug addiction is a perilous and powerful disease, but harm reduction is one way that thousands of people are trying to help those suffering, while treatment facilities develop innovative and life-saving recovery strategies. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

 

 

 

Dread Pirate Roberts of Silk Road Gets Full Conviction

Dread Pirate Roberts of Silk Road Gets Full Conviction

Author: Justin Mckibben

I have written a lot in the past about the controversy surrounding the infamous Silk Road and tracked the activities of Silk Road related arrests. The well-known Dark Web site has slowly but surely earned itself a reputation as a ‘name brand’ for black market online transactions, specifically for the sale and trafficking of illicit substances.

Since late 2013, there have been some key arrests made and some combative actions taken in attempts to dissolve the Silk Road, including:

  • In November 2013, the Silk Roadmarketplace was seized by the FBI, and Ross William Ulbricht, also known as “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested on allegations of being the owner of the market.
  • Silk Road 2.0started up just months after the end of its predecessor under the control of Ulbricht’s second in command, who took up the “Dread Pirate Roberts” mantel.
  • Last December,federal agents arrested 3 of Silk Road 2.0′s administrators, and the second “Dread Pirate Roberts”, leaving Silk Road 2.0 in the care of his second in command, “Defcon”.

Most of the active vendors abandoned Silk Road 2.0 after a huge hack that lost a lot of money for the site, in favor of other large markets such as Evolution and Agora that provide better security. Now another major development in the Dark Web war on drugs has hopefully set the tone for the future of fighting online drug trafficking.

The Silk Road Story

At one point Silk Road was known as the “Amazon.com of drug dealing” and became such a pioneer in pushing poison via the digital underground by using secure technology and an advanced buyer/user feedback system.

  • According to evidence presented at the trial, under his alias Ulbricht first hatched Silk Road back in 2009.
  • The original Silk Road was launched in 2011
  • The site became a massive international online marketplace, where members hawked everything from heroin and cocaine to drug paraphernalia and other illicit items, like computer hacking programs.
  • Goods were sold anonymously and paid for with electronic currency bitcoins.

Prosecutors stated during the course of the trial that through charging a commission on all the transactions that took place through their forum with a percentage of the sale, the site was able to put together an estimated $18 million in net worth by the time of Ulbricht’s arrest.

The End of ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’

Ross Ulbricht, AKA the original ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and the cyber mastermind behind the Silk Road’s online drugs marketplace, was officially found guilty on all charges this week after a trial lasting 3 weeks. Ulbricht was convicted of various charges, including but not limited to:

  • Drugs conspiracy
  • Money laundering
  • Trafficking

Today Ross ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ Ulbricht faces 20 years to life in prison for his involvement in the illicit internet empire that earned him a lot of bitcoin and a lot of attention.

Ross Ulbricht’s defense itself seemed a little weak. Ulbricht did admit in court that he had created Silk Road, but he then insisted that he had sold it and cut ties before being captured in 2013 by the FBI. His defense attorney claimed that the site was created as a harmless “economic experiment”, and that Ulbricht’s invention was later taken over by actual drug lords. Honestly it seems a little far-fetched, and apparently the jury wasn’t buying it either.

The verdict came down swift on Ulbricht, ultimately finding the ‘Dread Pirate’ of the cyber seas guilty on all of the charges brought against him.

Commenting on Ulbricht’s conviction, Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said,

“should send a clear message” that “the supposed anonymity of the dark web is not a protective shield from arrest and prosecution.”

This is an important point to make, especially since the major selling point for the Silk Roads clientel was the illusion of immunity from arrest based on the idea that there was ‘secured internet anonymity’ on the site. After Silk Road was shut down, the digital drug game didn’t skip a beat, as the forum was taken down, it was soon replaced by Silk Road 2.0 whose alleged operator Blake Benthall was arrested last year and faces up to 10 years in prison.

Oh but the buck doesn’t stop there, because Silk Road 3.0 was quick to replace it, just not with nearly as much support. These online cartels seem to be not going down without a fight, but despite their resistance it seems all ‘Dread Pirates’ must go down with their ship.

While some people are doing everything in their power to spread the scope of the illicit drug trade, others simply want to keep it contained to protect those whose lives are devastated by drugs and alcohol. As the reach of the War on Drugs reaches into the Dark Web, those who suffer deserve a way out. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135. We want to help. You are not alone.

 

Waging War on the Dark Web

Waging War on the Dark Web

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Justin Mckibben

The war against cyber drug cartel Silk Road stirred quite a bit of controversy in its first time online, and Silk Road 2.0 followed in stride with infamy and other services. Although the two sites were shut down after a series of investigations that unmasked young hackers claiming to be ‘revolutionaries’, another installment sprung up and the illustrious enterprise of the Dark Web was once again full of digital drug dealers.

Some users speculate this is only the beginning of a vast spreading web of elite internet empires, while other experts and authorities say that as time goes on, the quicker these sites are being shut down and the harder it will be for the hackers to escape. So with recent reports, let us take a look at the status of the war on the Dark Web.

Operation Onymous

Thanks to joint international law enforcement maneuvers code-named Operation Onymous, the servers and services of some sites were recently seized, throwing many online communities that hide behind virtual anonymity via the Tor network into a literal frenzy.

The action followed the arrest of Blake Benthall, Silk Road 2.0’s 26-year-old lead administrator. Benthall, also known by his online handle as Defcon, was apprehended in San Francisco after making a $72,000 bitcoin purchase. Bitcoin is the anonymous currency used on Silk Road.

The following day, the FBI and the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, working with 16 EU nations, made numerous press releases celebrating what some call a large win in the drug war, especially against the swelling dark-net market.

A total of 27 dark-net marketplaces were shut down alongside Silk Road 2.0, including largely ranked drug markets:

  • Hydra
  • Alpaca
  • Cloud 9
  • Cannabis Road

Reuniting the Dark Web

As if to rise up with a vengeance, a mere six weeks after the high-profile Operation Onymous seizures, business is once again sharp and seething at the dark-net marketplaces. While actual numbers are unavailable, the official marketplace list of Deep Dot Web indicates that black market entrepreneurs have opened several brand-new marketplaces, such as Middle Earth and SilkKitien.

As these sites keep up with business as usual, Real Hosting, an anonymous Tor hosting service, has reported numerous weekly requests from people interested in starting new ones. UK vendor of the powerful psychedelic drug DMT “ChemicalLiberty” stated recently on a forum at the Evolution marketplace.

“In our lifetime we will see massive revolution and redistribution of wealth and power. The unimaginable consequences of this transformation will happen faster than anyone dares predict.”

Robust declarations such as this have been standard among buyers and sellers even since the original manifestation of Silk Road back in February 2011. But is the confidence justified?

Trouble on Silk Road

Earlier articles have tracked the activities of Silk Road related arrests and actions being taken to further future efforts to combat this kind of cyber conduct, but just a few notes:

  • In November 2013, the Silk Road marketplace was seized by the FBI, and Ross William Ulbricht, also known as “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested on allegations of being the owner of the market.
  • Silk Road 2.0 started up just months after the end of its predecessor under the control of Ulbricht’s second in command, who took up the “Dread Pirate Roberts” mantel.
  • Last December,federal agents arrested 3 of Silk Road 2.0′s administrators, and the second “Dread Pirate Roberts”, leaving Silk Road 2.0 in the care of his second in command, “Defcon”.

Most of the active vendors abandoned Silk Road 2.0 after a huge hack that lost a lot of money for the site, in favor of other large markets such as Evolution and Agora that provide better security.

Filling the Viral Void

The Evolution site has tripled its sales over the past five months, but this market accepts stolen credit card information and credit card dumps, a service widely viewed as immoral and contrary to the standard “victimless crime” mentality that Silk Road started with.

According to experts and researchers the libertarian ideals behind Silk Road were about giving everyone free choice. The dark-net smugglers of Evolution have surpassed drugs to the more frowned upon fraud. But not all of its members see credit-card fraud as a deal breaker.

Evolution does, however, draw some moral red lines, outlawing:

  • child pornography
  • murder/assassination/terrorism
  • sex and/or prostitution
  • Ponzi schemes and investment opportunities
  • lotteries and raffles

One site called Agora keeps a close relationship to the original Silk Road philosophies and bans stolen credit card information.

Silk Road 3.0 Reloaded

Veteran users of the hidden services may have abandoned Silk Road, but the name and brand have not been abandoned. A small marketplace called Diabolous quickly re-branded itself as Silk Road 3.0 Reloaded in an attempt to capitalize on the legend’s name.

But Deep Dot Web has banned the listing of the market due to the re-use of the Silk Road name, and many users recommend avoiding the newest imitation. Many users share the opinion that trying to keep the Silk Road name alive is counterproductive to the real cause behind it.

If authorities have the power to de-anonymize Tor, then these markets are done, because the Dark Web is only possible with Tor style networks.

The Truth of Tor

Tor is the most sophisticated means for hiding the physical locations of dealers utilizing the Dark Web while browsing, and also allows for the creation of hidden sites running off of servers that may not even “know” the sites are there.

Without the use of a network like Tor most internet drug marketplaces are shut down quickly and easily. When this happens a federal subpoena will reveal the records of whoever rents the server space, because there is no extra identity protection. Although even with this added security sites like Silk Road are getting taken down. That just goes to show there may be far too much vulnerability in Tor’s infrastructure to rely on the security.

The War on the Dark Web

Many hackers and vendors have not been deterred by the events that brought down the 27 sites, or the continued investigations into online drug trafficking. Most believe that as the war on the Dark Web rages, smarter programmers with stronger software and innovative tactics will rise up, and for every site taken down, more ‘revolutionaries’ will step up to fill the void.

James Martin is an Australian criminologist who actually had a similar opinion. As the author of Lost on the Silk Road, a study of how online communication technology is transforming crime, Martin believes that dark-web commerce is quite sustainable, and many marketers are in for the long haul. In an email he explained,

“As further site closures are achieved, the surviving cryptomarkets will adapt and improve site security. Unless there is a follow-up operation sometime soon, particularly one that results in a large number of arrests—something that Onymous did not achieve—then cryptomarkets will continue to grow and diversify.”

The supply and demand for drugs, and for making money off of drugs, has not been curtailed by these recent arrests and dismantled drug empires. The drug trade has existed long before these trafficking tactics, and some speculate that with smartphones and other new inventions constantly evolving the way the internet works we may be seeing even more fascinating innovations in how dealers avoid detection and use the wireless waves of the world’s WiFi to wage war on the Dark Web.

While opinions on Silk Road and the evolution of internet illicit drug industries have varied in capability and conception, the idea that the war on drugs is still alive may mean more difficult decisions for those desperately trying to escape addiction. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135. We want to help. You are not alone.   

Follow-Up on Silk Road: Version 3.0 Already Getting a Bad Rep

Follow-Up on Silk Road: Version 3.0 Already Getting a Bad Rep

Author: Justin Mckibben

As if anyone would think computer hackers and programmers were in short supply, barely a few hours after authorities shut down Silk Road 2.0 last week the third installment of the online Dark Web drug market was launched. However, the new site has been met with great criticism.

New Kids or Old Tricks

Silk Road 2.0 was launched in response to the original Silk Road being shut down by the FBI, but Silk Road 3 Reloaded is actually a strategic name change from a website that was formerly named Diabolus Market. That site was launched just under a month ago as a ‘cannabis-only’ marketplace, but an automated email to users recent sent out described the site as “an anonymous, professional and peaceful marketplace selling all sorts of goods and services…there is no judgement, censorship or repercussion here. We are truly free.”

Initially is seems that the new site is simply attempting to ride the coat-tails of a more infamous enterprise. Even the automated messages from Silk Road 3 use the name Dread Pirate Roberts, which the original Silk Road founder went by. Ross William Ulbricht, the original Silk Road founder, was arrested last October by federal authorities. He is currently being charged with:

  • Soliciting murder
  • Drug trafficking
  • Money laundering
  • Facilitating computer hacking

The alleged operator of the new site even claims to actively be working with a member of the Silk Road 2.0 team. They wrote in an email

“He/she is using my code and servers but is operating SR 3.0 themselves. I don’t have anything more to say.”

Can’t Fool the Customers

Despite these supposed claims to the Silk Road fame, users remain skeptical and have not been pleased with the overall functionality of the new site. A regular user named Budflood wrote,

“The Silkroad [sic] 2.0 was designed with a lot more sophistication. This looks like it’s just been thrown together by a bunch of kids.”

Blake Benthall who launched Silk Road 2.0 was arrested last week and faces 10 years on charges including:

  • Conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking
  • Conspiring to commit computer hacking
  • Conspiring to traffic in fraudulent identification documents
  • Money laundering conspiracy

He was reportedly second-in-command for Silk Road 2.0 until December 2013, but began running the website when its founder ceased operations following the arrests of the original Silk Road operators.

No doubt, this apparently cheap imitation of the Silk Road will eventually be brought down the same as the others, and sure enough until there is a better handle on the Dark Web, sites like these will keep cropping up to try and corner the digital drug market. With the evolution of drug dealing, and reform in drug policies, treatment must continue to evolve and address the issue to help those who still suffer, and there is help out there. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

Silk Road 2.0 Shut Down

Silk Road 2.0 Shut Down

 

Author: Justin Mckibben

Silk Road was originally an internet black market used for digital drug dealing to be utilized for people to make massive sales and purchases without having to take the average dealers risk of riding around with large quantities of narcotics in their car, or meeting in shady alleys.

While the first Silk Road was shut down some time ago following an extensive investigation and the operator arrested, there was a new version that went online and active to take up the mantel, which has thankfully been put to an end as soon as possible.

The end of the line came up relatively quickly for Silk Road 2.0, a secretive online drugs marketplace created and modeled after the original “Amazon.com of drugs”. The plug was recently pulled on the second generation Silk Road 2.0. Today, the FBI announced they’ve put a swift and effective end to the second installment of the illicit drugs website, and taken its alleged owner, 26-year-old Blake Benthall, into custody.

The Illicit Legacy

The illegal Dark Web, which is only accessible by volunteer-operated encrypted networks like Tor, always attracts many “freedom-loving” types including libertarians, hackers and anarchists, as well as criminals of all kinds looking to make a change to their own enterprises through a ‘safer’ forum.

When the FBI arrested Ulbritch in 2013 he was placed in custody and faced trial on charges including narcotics trafficking, money laundering, computer hacking, and even conspiracy to commit murder.

During the brief absence of Silk Road rival marketplaces such as Agora and Evolution continued to operate. Agora quickly became the new standard for online drug transactions. Its main competitor, Black Market Reloaded, was shut down in November 2013 after its source code was leaked. After that, Sheep was the main competitor until it too went under—and stole a treasure in users’ bitcoin.

A big part of Black Market Reloaded’s success came from its willingness to sell lethal weapons, including dynamite and other explosives. Silk Road had no objection to offering a wide range of merchandise, but that site drew the line at weapons.

Passing the Torch

Silk Road 2.0 developed and went viral within a matter of weeks after owner Ross Ulbritch, known by the online alias “Dread Pirate Roberts,” was arrested in October of last year. Benthall, who is known online as “Defcon,” began operating Silk Road 2.0 that December, only a month after the site was launched by a co-conspirator who remains un-identified at this time. Given the nature of the crime and the collective evidence against “Defcon” the charges against Benthall could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Ross “Dread Pirate Roberts” Ulbritch had initially created Silk Road as a way to try and avoid the dangers typically associated with the sale and trafficking of illegal narcotics. Ulbritch’s end-game was to transform an infamously violent industry into a safe online marketplace for safe and lucrative business by removing the risk of face-to-face transactions with what he called “humanity’s first truly free, anonymous, unbiased marketplace.”

Transactions through this kind of Dark Web black-market style sites are made using Bitcoins and the websites operate in the shady areas of the Internet that are not indexed and therefore not easily obtainable by standard search engines. Other illicit services that were sold through this class of websites included everything from hacking-tools to hit-men.

The Investigation Information

According to the information collected during the investigation it was recorded that as of this past September, prosecutors claim that Silk Road 2.0 was generating at least an astounding $8 million a month. Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement:

“Let’s be clear – this Silk Road, in whatever form, is the road to prison.”

Benthall has entered a plea of not guilty as of this point. He is currently scheduled for trial in New York in January. In the meantime, many are wondering if this only means we will be expecting these hackers and digital drug dealers to upgrade their systems and strategies, and if so how long until we see the arrival of Silk Road 3.0.

While the digital age of drug dealing presents new problems for those who are fighting the war on drugs, it also presents a new problem for those struggling to overcome the disease of addiction. There have been several developments on how social media and the Dark Web intend to make drug dealing as easy as a download, but that puts more who have drug problems at even greater risk. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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