Drugs 2.0: Your Crack's in the Post

May 2013 overview of Silk Road 1’s rise, powered by Tor & Bitcoin, enabling safe and easy online drug sales through the mail.
politics, Silk-Road
by: Mike Power 2013-10-192013-11-29 finished certainty: log importance: 7

This is an anno­tated tran­script of the chap­ter “Your Crack’s in the Post” (pg219–244) & an excerpt from the chap­ter “Pro­hi­bi­tion in the Dig­i­tal Age” (pg262), of Drugs 2.0: The Web Rev­o­lu­tion That’s Chang­ing How the World Gets High, Mike Power (2013-05-02); it is prin­ci­pally on the topic of , , and .

Drugs 2.0

“Your Crack’s in the Post”

by Mike Power

The first time you see 1 there’s a creak­ing dis­con­nect between your eyes and all the evi­dence they deliv­er, and your pre­con­cep­tions up to that point. There’s a strange smile, mix­ing recog­ni­tion, rev­e­la­tion and con­fu­sion, play­ing on your lips. It all looks famil­iar to any­one who reg­u­larly shops online, but is in some way uncan­nily differ­ent. It can’t be real, can it? Yes, it is. You can buy any drug you want right now on the web. Every drug you can think of, and a dizzy­ing few dozen more, are on open sale on the site, from old-style ille­gal such as , and LSD, to of every hue, includ­ing cre­ations, work, Karl [Jansen]’s2 vari­ants and Kinet­ic’s . If there’s a drug miss­ing that you really want, you can always ask for it to be offered, imported or syn­the­sized. And if you’re your­self, there are syn­the­ses and pre­cur­sors for sale too.

Rather than wait­ing for the drug laws to change, activists, deal­ers and users have declared an inde­pen­dent state online where all com­merce, within cer­tain bound­aries, is per­mit­ted by the site’s mys­te­ri­ous own­er. Its guide to ven­dors is pretty lais­sez-faire: “Do not list any­thing who’s [sic] pur­pose is to harm or defraud, such as stolen items or info, stolen credit cards, coun­ter­feit cur­ren­cy, per­sonal info, assas­si­na­tions, and weapons of any kind. Do not list any­thing related to pedophilia [sic].”

The site has Nor­we­gians sell­ing Cam­bo­dian mush­rooms, Cana­di­ans sell­ing Afghan hero­in, and Brits sell­ing con­cen­trated tinc­tures from ancient Nepalese cannabis grown under arti­fi­cial sun­light in lofts that may well be in . Appro­pri­ately for a site named after that first brought these drugs to the West, there are also , includ­ing , pre­scrip­tion , and white and brown heroin from Afghanistan. Most of the prod­ucts are ille­gal, but whether you want a quar­ter gram of heroin or a gram of glit­ter­ing Peru­vian escama de pescado cocaine3, you’re in the right place, and there’s not a great deal the police or cus­toms can do to stop you.

The Silk Road is a dream­land—ex­cept it’s hap­pen­ing today, in dozens of coun­tries, not in some dystopian future in a nov­el. For all that, it’s a web­site like any oth­er, if web design skills were locked down in the ancient pre-Google, pre-A­ma­zon days. You almost expect each page to be sound­tracked by the scream­ing of a modem while the bits crackle slowly down the phone lines. But instead of books or house­hold goods, there, in the most stark and sim­ple lan­guage pos­si­ble, adver­tis­ers lay out the drugs they offer and their prices. In a neat left­-hand nav­i­ga­tion bar there’s a list of differ­ent cat­e­gories. are well rep­re­sent­ed, along with research chem­i­cals and stan­dard options such as LSD and an abun­dance of mush­rooms. There are , and a few other Shulgin-cre­ated del­i­ca­cies for the chem­i­cal cognoscen­ti. There’s —the drug William Bur­roughs trav­elled months in the Ama­zon to find. One ven­dor, “Seakong”, has a gram of the more hal­lu­cino­genic cousin of , , for sale, syn­the­sized, he says, by an aspir­ing chemist friend. At just $1,592, it’s an absolute steal for such a rarely seen drug. The ₿ sym­bol stands for bit­coin, the mys­te­ri­ous cur­rency whose use is com­pul­sory in this online mar­ket, of which more lat­er.

There are tran­quil­iz­ers, such as , lots of crys­tal MDMA and Ecstasy pills, dis­so­cia­tives such as ket­a­mine, and stim­u­lants, includ­ing crack, and other . There’s high­-grade , with enthu­si­as­tic rec­om­men­da­tions from sat­is­fied cus­tomers for one par­tic­u­lar ven­dor, detail­ing how he vac­u­um-sealed and wrapped and triple-packed the highly fra­grant goods into an enve­lope small enough to be posted through most stan­dard let­ter­box­es, negat­ing the need to sign for the pack­et­s—or for the rais­ing of any red flags at cus­toms. That the strain is one of the world’s old­est and ear­li­est genetic exam­ples of the plant, brought to Europe and thence to the US along tra­di­tional trad­ing routes, is an irony prob­a­bly not lost on the Silk Road’s intel­li­gently com­bat­ive and artic­u­late own­er, who oper­ates under the pseu­do­nym Dread Pirate Roberts.4

Buy­ing is a sim­ple mat­ter of adding the goods to your shop­ping cart, and pay­ing for them. The money is held in an account hosted at the site, and although you have to sup­ply a deliv­ery address, this can be encrypt­ed, and is deleted as soon as you have received the goods. The site also gives detailed infor­ma­tion on how to receive pack­ages safe­ly:

Use a differ­ent, unre­lated address than the one where your item will be kept, such as a friend’s house or P.O. box. Once the item arrives, trans­port it dis­creetly to its final des­ti­na­tion. Avoid aban­doned build­ings or any place where it would be sus­pi­cious to have mail deliv­ered. Do not sign for your pack­age. If you are expect­ing a pack­age from us, do not answer the door for the post­man, let him [de­liver it] and then trans­port it as described above. Do not use your real name. This tac­tic does­n’t work in some places because deliv­er­ies won’t be made to names not reg­is­tered with the address. If you think this is a prob­lem, send your­self a test let­ter with the fake name and see if it arrives. If you fol­low these guide­li­nes, your chances of being detected are min­i­mal. In the event that you are detect­ed, deny request­ing the pack­age. Any­one can send any­one else any­thing in the mail.

Ini­tially the Silk Road also had a weapons trad­ing area, but many users were uneasy about the influx of arms deal­ers and a new sub­site, the Armory, was launched in Feb­ru­ary 2012. It was closed in August 2012 due to a lack of inter­est.

The Silk Road’s turnover reached US$27 mil­lion a year within its first year of oper­a­tion, accord­ing to secu­rity researcher Nico­las Christin, who scraped the site’s data by deploy­ing soft­ware agents under mul­ti­ple user accounts that recorded cus­tomer activ­ity via the pub­lic feed­back sys­tem and showed how many trans­ac­tions had taken place. He crunched that data in the mid­dle of 2012 to cal­cu­late the mar­ket’s size.5 The site’s own­ers take a com­mis­sion on each sale of around six per cen­t—or US$178,504 per month at cur­rent rates.

The Silk Road has a very busy forum area, too, with over 100,000 posts, 9,000 top­ics and 11,000 users in the bustling com­mu­nity pages. The con­ver­sa­tions there weave around the site’s holy trin­i­ty: drugs, smug­gling and cryp­tog­ra­phy. There was once even a post pur­port­edly by a Cana­dian postal offi­cial who claimed to have become addicted to opi­ates fol­low­ing an acci­dent, in which he gave instruc­tions on how to avoid detec­tion. It was, he said, his thanks to the site for enabling him to man­age his pain and addic­tion, since he could not obtain his med­i­cines any other way. It was either a fan­tas­ti­cally sub­ver­sive act or a cun­ning black­-ops move. It read like both, just to com­pli­cate the mat­ter.

The Silk Road is the most pop­u­lar of the grow­ing hid­den net­work of drug deal­ers who use Tor, or The Onion Router net­work, an alter­na­tive web-like space that swarms with users in vir­tual tun­nels beneath the every­day web. One drug-deal­ing site found there, the Gen­eral Store, is even more bare-bones than the Silk Road, but still deliv­ers the goods it offers: ket­a­mine, DMT, MDMA. Another site, Black Mar­ket Reloaded6, oper­ates on sim­i­lar prin­ci­ples and offers the same drugs and ser­vices as the Silk Road, though it’s far less busy. The value of the ser­vice pro­vided by the Silk Road is pro­por­tional to the num­bers of peo­ple using it, and the site is quickly grow­ing.

How does such a ser­vice as the Silk Road even con­tinue to exist, when it is break­ing the law in such a fla­grant man­ner? In order for its cus­tomers to be com­pletely untrace­able, and there­fore invul­ner­a­ble to legal pros­e­cu­tion, the Silk Road is hosted on a hid­den ser­vice, buried away on the Dark Web, far from the reach of Google. Sites on this net­work have ran­domly gen­er­ated address­es, made up of a string of mean­ing­less char­ac­ters, and end­ing in .onion rather than .com. Its owner and its user­s—both the deal­ers and the cus­tomer­s—have com­plete anonymi­ty. The loca­tion of the server that hosts the site is unknown, and unknow­able. And, extra­or­di­nar­i­ly, the Amer­i­can Navy is, in some small and unin­tended way, par­tially respon­si­ble for this state of affairs.

The Silk Road is hosted on the Tor net­work, which allows users to browse access sites known as ‘hid­den ser­vices’ anony­mous­ly, via a lay­ered net­work of vol­un­teer servers that encrypt traffic. As the Torproject.org web­site describes it, ‘Tor is free soft­ware and an open net­work that helps you defend your­self against a form of net­work sur­veil­lance that threat­ens per­sonal free­dom and pri­va­cy, con­fi­den­tial busi­ness activ­i­ties and rela­tion­ships, and state secu­rity known as traffic analy­sis.’

Infor­ma­tion activist Andrew Lew­man lives between the US and Ice­land, and is the mouth­piece of the Tor orga­ni­za­tion. He laughs as he recalls con­ver­sa­tions he has had at con­fer­ences in the last eigh­teen months since the Silk Road began to become pop­u­lat­ed. “Peo­ple have come up to me and said: ‘Wow, thanks for the Silk Road!’ I’ve been like, ‘Woah! Assume we’re being recorded here! We don’t host Silk Road­—it’s just an address. [Tor hid­den ser­vices] are just an algo­rithm that pro­vides an address.’”7

The Tor soft­ware and net­work was cre­ated in 2001 by two com­puter sci­ence grad­u­ates at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy. They took a piece of unde­ployed soft­ware, which had been writ­ten by the Amer­i­can Navy in 1995 to enable sim­ple, anony­mous inter­net use, and released their own ver­sion of it online, with the Navy’s per­mis­sion. “The Navy had this project called Onion Rout­ing, and it’s still going today”, explains Lew­man. “Its goal is to defeat net­work traffic analy­sis, which is the abil­ity to know who you are, who you’re talk­ing to, and how much data you send and receive. If you think of enve­lope data from your postal sys­tem, that’s the basis of intel­li­gence gath­er­ing. For what­ever rea­son, the Navy wanted this tech­nol­o­gy—they started the project [in-house] but they did­n’t have any inten­tion of releas­ing it pub­licly”, Lew­man explains. “So Paul Syver­son, a math­e­mati­cian who’s still the core researcher for onion rout­ing for the Navy, met grad stu­dent Roger Din­gle­dine at a con­fer­ence. Roger said, ‘Have you ever thought of putting this on the inter­net?’ At the time the Navy had no plans for deploy­ment. But Paul said sure. So the first prob­lem to solve was that if the Navy were to release this code online—to release it to the world—they had to give up their anonymity”, said Lew­man. The impos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing an anony­mous net­work owned by the Navy was a com­i­cal catch-22. “You can’t have a Navy anonymity net­work, because no mat­ter what indi­vid­ual sol­dier you are, your adver­sary will still know you are the navy and will still treat you as such”, he said.

If an anonymiz­ing ser­vice is used by just one spe­cific cat­e­gory of peo­ple then it’s easy for observers to tell who they are. For exam­ple, if no one had white cars except the police, every time you saw a white car, you’d know it was the police. You would­n’t know which indi­vid­ual police­man it was, but you’d know they were a police­man, and would be able to see where they were going, and how often. The more peo­ple who used the sys­tem the bet­ter—the crowd offers greater cov­er.

The orig­i­nal aim of the grad stu­dents, Roger Din­gle­dine and Nick Math­ew­son, was to give users con­trol over their data when they went online. This was dur­ing the first dot­com boom, and many com­pa­nies were giv­ing away ser­vices for free—or rather, in exchange for your data and your brows­ing habits, which they would then sell on to third par­ties. Infor­ma­tion activists rejected that busi­ness model and wanted to offer an alter­na­tive, and so Din­gle­dine and Math­ew­son cre­ated a vari­ant on the Navy pro­to­col, call­ing it Tor. The way Tor works is best described in sim­ple terms. When you type a web address into a stan­dard browser, such as or , your con­nec­tion to the inter­net orig­i­nates from and returns to a unique address, known as your Inter­net Pro­to­col, or . This infor­ma­tion is included inside the packet of data that you send when you press enter. The request, or pack­et, is then sent via the quick­est pos­si­ble route to the address you have spec­i­fied, and then the request is deliv­ered in the same way, but in reverse. The request for the infor­ma­tion, and the data you receive, is stored by your , or ISP, and can be observed at many points along the entire trans­ac­tion. Your ISP assigns you an IP address, which is a string of dig­its sep­a­rated by dec­i­mal points. The address may be tem­po­rary; in some places it changes every day, in oth­ers it is active until you lose power for more than eight hours. Your IP address is the way your infor­ma­tion requests and responses route through the net­work, and it can be thought of as your dig­i­tal home address.

When a British net user does a Google search, the ISP routes it to a Google server, for the sake of illus­tra­tion, in the US. The traffic goes across the ocean to Google and it sends all your data back to your IP address. Google now knows where you are, because of where those addresses are assigned. There are geo­graphic IP data­bases that will map your IP down to a street in many cas­es, or at least a neigh­bour­hood—­some­thing not desired by peo­ple who want to buy and sell pounds of hashish online. Your ISP gets to see all of your traffic and every­thing you do across it, along with every­one else between you and your des­ti­na­tion, which in this case is Google, which gets to see where you live in the world so it can tar­get ads at you.

“My IP address at home maps me down to my street”, says Lew­man. “They know exactly where I am and where I live, what street and they can prob­a­bly guess what house would be mine.” Once you down­load and install Tor, he explains, a browser win­dow like any other opens, and you type in address­es. It then cre­ates a vir­tual tun­nel from point to point, and hides each piece of data inside a series of encrypted lay­ers, like the rings of an onion.

“What Tor does is build a tun­nel which con­nects through three differ­ent relays in the world, so though you may phys­i­cally be in the UK, your first con­nec­tion may be to Hong Kong, your sec­ond may be to Argenti­na, your third will be in Japan. If you think of dri­ving a car into a tun­nel—in Tor you enter the tun­nel in the UK, and then pop out in Japan. In order to watch what you’re doing on the net author­i­ties would have to watch the entire inter­net”, says Lew­man.

The net­work and the soft­ware, which is dis­trib­uted free at Torproject.org, grew with the help of fund­ing from , a trusted global Amer­i­can news site. The ser­vice approached the Tor project in 2006 and said they had noticed that users from all over the world in repres­sive regimes were using the Tor soft­ware to con­nect to their web pages. They asked the Tor vol­un­teers to form a com­pa­ny, in order to make the ser­vice and the net­work more widely avail­able, which they did. “At the time we were still inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors with the EFF [the online free­dom of speech group, the , set up by cre­ator ] and the Amer­i­can Depart­ment of Defence at the same time, which made for some strange meet­ings”’ says Lew­man.

Tor is not just used by those engaged in illicit activ­i­ty. The vast major­ity of Tor users are sim­ply peo­ple who want pri­vacy when they go online, as the infor­ma­tion gath­ered on us by search engines and social media grows dai­ly. When research­ing sen­si­tive or med­ical mat­ters, some users don’t want Face­book or Google searches send­ing unset­tlingly accu­rate adverts back at them. There were thir­ty-six mil­lion down­loads of the soft­ware last year, though that does not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late to daily users, of which there are around one mil­lion. And in repres­sive regimes such as Iran, Tor users can access sites that are blocked by the gov­ern­ment. “In Iran, between 60,000 and 100,000 peo­ple use Tor dai­ly, for the most part [for] look­ing up innocu­ous stuff such as celebrity gos­sip—[but it is also used by] polit­i­cal activists look­ing to get their mes­sages out of the . Iran’s cit­i­zenry have a long his­tory of cir­cum­vent­ing cen­sor­ship, from back in the 1960s when short­wave was banned and they fig­ured out a way to get around it. Then it was satel­lite TV, but you had to get the state broad­cast; Iran jams other sig­nals. Peo­ple have got good at hid­ing their ille­gal dish­es, or have made them portable so they can watch TV and take it down quickly”, says Lew­man. He con­tin­ued, “Now the net is just another way. And as more peo­ple go online, and get their news online, and their life is online, the gov­ern­ment of Iran is try­ing to block that to main­tain their cen­sor­ship regime, but the Ira­ni­ans are well trained in cir­cum­vent­ing that.” The Tor soft­ware is smug­gled into the coun­try and dis­trib­uted samiz­dat among users, by the so-called ‘’ of friends walk­ing between houses with the code on USB flash dri­ves, dis­guised in encrypted files on cam­era cards, or buried between the etched grooves of an offi­cially allowed CD-Rom.

Of course there is a sin­is­ter side to this lib­er­tar­ian tech­nol­o­gy. Dig a lit­tle deeper around this hid­den, or Dark Web and you’ll find pages that would give even the most extreme lib­er­tar­ian pause for thought. The Quick Kill page offers to “remove the prob­lem in your life”—for a pay­ment of US $12,483 up front and US $12,483 once the tar­get is elim­i­nat­ed. “We are here to do busi­ness” say the site’s own­ers, reas­sur­ing—or dis­ap­point­ing—prospec­tive cus­tomers that they will not kill polit­i­cal fig­ures. It’s prob­a­bly a scam8, but it’s a dis­turb­ing one nonethe­less. Hid­den deeper in the lay­ers of these .onion sites are weapons deal­ers who tell cus­tomers look­ing to spend less than US$12,483 to look else­where. They draw the line at bio­log­i­cal weapons.

“Some­body showed me a forum run by the Ital­ian mafia on Tor and they traffic weapons and drugs and tonnes of garbage and toxic waste on a BBS”, says one anony­mous inter­vie­wee. “It’s hid­den from pub­lic net, but it’s out in the open. They don’t use any code words, and they have the same juve­nile jokes you’d see on a usual bul­letin board sys­tem.”

Lew­man is real­is­tic about the fact that the net­work can be used by crim­i­nals, child pornog­ra­phers, drug deal­ers and fraud­sters. “Tor is just a tech­nol­o­gy. Silk Road and these other things would exist on some­thing else if it was­n’t for Tor. I don’t know why they picked Tor and I don’t care. Our code is all open source, every­thing we do is open source, and is mir­rored all over the world. So even if for what­ever rea­son, let’s say the pae­dophile-ter­ror­ist-drug-lords and the four horse­men of the apoc­a­lypse take over Tor and that’s the major­ity usage, then the cur­rent Tor net­work could shut down, and just like a phoenix it will get born again. Then maybe we’ll have 10 or 1,200 Tor net­works because every­one starts run­ning their own.”

Drugs, you might con­sid­er, are the least of the author­i­ties’ wor­ries when it comes to the hid­den under­belly of the net. But not so: in June 2011 the US demon­strated that it is not con­tent only to fight end­less and expen­sive wars in real life, but that it now intends to take its pyrrhic bat­tles online. That mon­th, Demo­c­ra­tic Sen­a­tors of New York and of West Vir­ginia wrote to Attor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder and DEA Admin­is­tra­tion head Michele Leon­hart call­ing for the Silk Road to be shut down. Their star­tling lack of insight into how this part of the inter­net actu­ally works might be for­giv­able in an unin­ter­ested or gen­eral web user. For leg­is­la­tors lob­by­ing for its clo­sure to fail to under­stand that the site is not find­able, and even if it were found, could sim­ply resur­face else­where on the Dark Web, vir­tu­ally guar­an­tees that the net­work, and oth­ers like it, will exist, grow and gain strength for many years to come—­for as long, in fact, as drugs are ille­gal. There really isn’t any way to shut down the Silk Road unless mul­ti­ple gov­ern­ments syn­chro­nize a world­wide jam of the entire inter­net—as Egypt did for a few brief days in Jan­u­ary 2011 dur­ing the Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tion. It soon came back online when busi­nesses started los­ing mon­ey.

“All the war on drugs does is knock off the idiots on the cor­ner because they sell it to under­cover cops”, Lew­man says. “The big drug car­tels can afford sub­marines and planes, and bribe entire police depart­ments, which means the money is flow­ing some­where. The DEA are going after the humans.” He says the DEA’s inter­est was piqued by Sen­a­tors Schumer and Manch­in’s blus­ter. “In a long line of things that will kill Amer­i­ca, Silk Road is the worst right now. That got a lot of atten­tion and press but had the oppo­site effect to what they want­ed. What peo­ple heard was that Silk Road has really good drugs!” he says.

Silk Road’s own­ers are entirely anony­mous. But the name of the cur­rent site admin­is­tra­tor is an intrigu­ing clue as to the way the ser­vice may be run. Though Dread Pirate Roberts was pre­vi­ously named “Silk Road” in the mar­ket’s attached forum pages, and “Admin” in the mar­ket­place itself, he renamed him­self in Feb­ru­ary 2012, delight­ing in posts for days before­hand in the appro­pri­ate­ness of the name he would soon reveal. It turned out he had cho­sen to call him­self after a swash­buck­ling pirate char­ac­ter in the 1973 fan­tasy novel by renowned Amer­i­can screen­writer . In that work, the Dread Pirate Roberts is a per­sona assumed by many differ­ent char­ac­ters, each of whom hands the mantle, name, respon­si­bil­i­ties and ship to his cho­sen suc­ces­sor. It seems pos­si­ble that the Silk Road site is run not by a sin­gle oper­a­tor, but by a loosely tied con­glom­er­ate of indi­vid­u­als, each of whom suc­ces­sively takes the risk—and reaps the reward­s—that run­ning the site must entail. It’s impos­si­ble to say. Per­haps the name more sim­ply nods at the pop­u­lar respect for the out­law-pi­rate hero fig­ure who has thrived in a world where down­loads are far more respectable than shoplift­ing a DVD.

Appro­pri­ately enough, it was William Gold­man who wrote the line “Fol­low the money”, in the 1976 film , a phrase that has become the bat­tle-cry for inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists look­ing for exam­ples of offi­cial cor­rup­tion.9 The archi­tec­ture of bit­coin, the cur­rency used on the Silk Road by deal­ers and users, and other ser­vices deployed by the site, mean the money can­not be sim­ply fol­lowed. Trans­ac­tions are almost anony­mous, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are encrypted between the intended recip­i­ents, mak­ing eaves­drop­ping impos­si­ble.

Proof that the site deliv­ered was broad­cast in the UK in Feb­ru­ary 2012 when researchers from BBC Radio Five Live ordered and received a sam­ple of very high­-pu­rity DMT. The sam­ple was tested by John Ram­sey at St George’s, and he said it was indeed excel­lent qual­i­ty. The story was broad­cast and pub­lished on the BBC’s web­site. Andrew Lew­man audi­bly facepalms as he relates the story over the tele­phone. “What bet­ter advert could they have given? Not only does this ille­gal site sell rare drugs, it sells very high­-qual­ity prod­uct.” But you did­n’t need to trust the BBC. The forums at the site offered crowd­sourced proof of the best ven­dors and worst scam­mers. In June 2012, reviews for the best LSD ven­dor ran to eighty-one pages, with 50,000 views, heroin to twen­ty-two pages with 8,000 views. Cocaine ven­dors were reviewed in a 292-page behe­moth with over 90,000 views, and MDMA ran in at 129 pages with over 60,000 views.

One ven­dor said deal­ing drugs on the site was­n’t with­out its moral prob­lems. “The prospect of a twelve-year-old loaded to the gills on my MDMA is not a pleas­ant one. Enabling self-destructive/addictive behav­iour is also upset­ting to me. Deal­ing in real life [IRL] you can rec­og­nize abuse and let cus­tomers know you’re con­cerned, but online, there’s no way to tell.”

He admit­ted, though, that vend­ing on the site was finan­cially much more lucra­tive than sell­ing in real life: “IRL, you’re lim­ited by your social cir­cles, but here it’s only a ques­tion of sup­ply, cap­i­tal and hours in the day. Pack­ag­ing straight-up sucks to do. It’s extremely monot­o­nous and requires a good degree of con­cen­tra­tion to avoid mak­ing any mis­takes that might endan­ger the cus­tomer receiv­ing. Some­times dur­ing espe­cially busy peri­ods I spend 70, 80, 90 hours a week pack­ag­ing, all of it extremely dull. Apart from the risk of being locked up for the next decade it’s defi­nitely the worst part. Deal­ing in real life is much more pleas­ant.”

Greater para­noia about the author­i­ties is another down­side: “Pub­lic drug mar­kets [such as this] are a giant mid­dle fin­ger to many pow­er­ful inter­ests and so the polit­i­cal moti­va­tion to shut them down and lock up the peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing is out of pro­por­tion to the actual vol­ume of illicit trade tak­ing place. Last sum­mer I was the ‘num­ber one’ (ba­si­cally high­est-vol­ume) ven­dor on the site for a while, and the fear really crept up on me. I’d lie awake at night think­ing about it, wor­ry­ing I was going to have my door kicked down and be dragged away at any moment. I’m much more com­fort­able with it now, but if I had known from the start how much men­tal tor­ment and stress were involved with vend­ing, I prob­a­bly would­n’t have start­ed.”

How­ev­er, there are upsides, he says: “I find the day-to-day grind of vend­ing online worse than deal­ing IRL, but the human inter­ac­tion online is often a lot more uplift­ing in some ways. Most peo­ple I sell to IRL are club kids/raver types so they’re more pre­dis­posed towards hedo­nism (which I of course have noth­ing again­st!) than using for more spiritual/emotional rea­sons, so the feed­back is less touch­ing, which is a defi­nite neg­a­tive for me. I get emails from Silk Road cus­tomers telling me how the drugs I sell have helped them with emo­tional or spir­i­tual or sex­ual prob­lems, peo­ple mend­ing bro­ken rela­tion­ships, rekin­dling inti­ma­cy.”

If pre­dic­tions that sites such as the Silk Road will become more pop­u­lar, or even com­mon­place seem far-fetched, think back just sev­en­teen years. At that point, Ama­zon.­com was a three­-per­son startup launch­ing from a garage; today, it’s the first place most peo­ple look to buy almost any object that can be deliv­ered.

And exactly the same issues con­front users of online drugs mar­kets today as faced those who dared enter their credit card details on to a book­shop’s web­site in the 1990s. Will the ven­dor deliv­er? Can I trust this soft­ware with my mon­ey? The only differ­ence is that Silk Road cus­tomers might find them­selves won­der­ing whether their pur­chase will result in a jail sen­tence.

The moti­va­tion for peo­ple to use the Silk Road is high, given the pre­vail­ing legal cli­mate. Con­sid­er­ing that the Royal Mail in the UK deliv­ers 15.9 bil­lion items a year to the UK’s 29 mil­lion addresses10 and that small envelopes and pack­ages are sel­dom opened, much less X-rayed or sniffed by dogs, cap­ture, pros­e­cu­tion and impris­on­ment look unlike­ly.

One ven­dor on the site even offers a fake pack­age ser­vice for the super-cau­tious: he’ll deliver you an empty box or enve­lope for a small charge, just to get the post­man used to deliv­er­ing pack­ages from over­seas.

Pack­ag­ing by many ven­dors on the site is said to be excep­tion­ally inge­nious, and the pro­to­col on the forums and in feed­back forms below pur­chases is never to dis­cuss the details of these. What’s more, there are ven­dors in many coun­tries so there’s no need to worry about inter­na­tional postal or cus­toms issues: users in the US or UK or the Nether­land­s—or indeed, in dozens of coun­tries world­wide—­can buy drugs from deal­ers in their own coun­tries, remov­ing the dan­ger of bor­der staff tar­get­ing their pack­ages.

Tech­ni­cal­ly, while the Tor net­work is now small, mean­ing its pages load more slowly than those on nor­mal web­sites, in com­ing years the power of cloud com­put­ing means that more relays car­ry­ing the ser­vice will be able to be set up cheap­ly. In Novem­ber 2011 Ama­zon’s cloud servers started host­ing Tor bridges. For three dol­lars a mon­th, users click and sup­port the pro­ject, with no knowl­edge of the tech­nol­ogy required. And in late 2012, the group of online activists made sup­port­ing the Tor net­work as easy as click­ing on a donate but­ton at Noisetor.net. Anonymity 2.0—click here to buy now.

Most politi­cians speak as if they believe there is an ‘off’ but­ton for the net that can be thrown with­out affect­ing busi­ness inter­ests, too. But the dreams of early net pio­neers, for bet­ter and for worse, are now com­ing true.

Peo­ple are now con­nected to each other with no cen­tral hier­ar­chy gov­ern­ing that process; infor­ma­tion flows freely and respects no author­i­ty, and the net­work is inde­struc­tible.

As , a futur­ol­o­gist and Stan­ford com­puter engi­neer, and pres­i­dent of Insti­tute for the Future, said: “We tend to over­es­ti­mate the effect of a tech­nol­ogy in the short run and under­es­ti­mate the effect in the long run.”

A new kind of cur­rency is mak­ing offi­cial con­trol of this area even hard­er. Bit­coin is an elec­tronic cash sys­tem, pro­duced using cryp­tog­ra­phy. It is a peer-to-peer cur­ren­cy, made by users, mean­ing that no cen­tral author­ity issues money or tracks trans­ac­tions. For every legal bit­coin user, sell­ing web design ser­vices or car­ry­ing out cod­ing jobs for which they are paid in the cur­ren­cy, there are many more using bit­coins to buy drugs on the Silk Road. Bit­coin is today the pre­ferred choice of hun­dreds of online drug deal­ers. You can buy bit­coins using cash or other cur­ren­cies in hun­dreds of ways, with vary­ing lev­els of anonymi­ty. Using bit­coins can be, depend­ing on how you use them, almost com­pletely anony­mous.

Orig­i­nal­ly, bit­coins were pro­duced by “min­ers”—a fig­u­ra­tive term for com­puter own­ers who donated their proces­sor time to the project and were rewarded with coins for their efforts. The cur­ren­cy, or rather, the sys­tem that cre­ates the cur­ren­cy, was released to the web on 2008-11-01, as the world eco­nomic sys­tem teetered on the brink of sys­temic col­lapse. Anony­mous soft­ware coder Satoshi Nakamoto issued the open source appli­ca­tion, and included a sly ref­er­ence to the lat­est bank­ing bailout by Britain’s then-chan­cel­lor of the exche­quer, Alis­tair Dar­ling, buried in code for the so-called Gen­e­sis Block—the first coins ever ‘mined’, in Jan­u­ary 2009.11

The main rea­son no purely dig­i­tal cur­rency has ever gained trac­tion is because data-as-cash has a cen­tral flaw. As the music indus­try has dis­cov­ered in recent years, dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion is infi­nitely copy­able. Dig­i­tal mon­ey, until now, could . To pre­vent this, a cen­tral banker would be required, some­one who would main­tain a sales ledger. But who could be trusted with such a thing? Bit­coin solved that prob­lem by turn­ing to the crowd for the answer, dis­trib­ut­ing the record of trans­ac­tions much like a .torrent file.

Tor­rents are shared down­loads, so when a user fires up their bit-tor­rent client and down­loads, say, a film using a tor­rent file from an ille­gal site such as the Pirate Bay, they actu­ally down­load mil­lions of chunks of the file from a swarm of users at once, rather than one file from one cen­tral serv­er. The tor­rent soft­ware on the down­load­ers’ machines then assem­bles the pieces of data into a film or music file.

Nakamo­to’s ele­gant solu­tion to the dou­ble-spend dilemma12 was to cre­ate what he called a “block chain”, a dis­trib­ut­ed, or shared ledger of all trans­fers of coins from one per­son to anoth­er. Crowd­sourced, decen­tral­ized, mas­sively dis­trib­uted cryp­to­graphic cash had arrived.

Users, known as min­ers, donate proces­sor time to main­tain and update the block chain, which records all trans­ac­tions between users, and in the process also “dig” for new coins. Min­ers’ com­put­ers send evi­dence of those trans­ac­tions to the net­work, rac­ing each other to solve these irre­versible cryp­to­graphic puz­zles that con­tain sev­eral trans­ac­tions. The first miner to crack these puz­zles gets fifty new bit­coins as a reward, and those trans­ac­tions are added to the blockchain. The puz­zles are designed to become more com­plex over time as more min­ers come on board, which main­tains pro­duc­tion to one block every ten min­utes, keep­ing the cre­ation of new coins steady. The reward for suc­cess­ful min­ing also falls over time, from fifty to twen­ty-five coins per block, and drops sequen­tially by half every 210,000 blocks. In the year 2140, there will be no more bit­coins minted or mined—the soft­ware lim­its their pro­duc­tion, mean­ing there will only ever be twen­ty-one mil­lion coins in exis­tence, pre­vent­ing infla­tion. They can, though, be divided to eight dec­i­mal places, with each sub­-u­nit known as a satoshi, after the coder who invented them.

Bit­coin could almost be seen as per­for­mance art; it demon­strates in the most prac­ti­cal way what many peo­ple have never con­sid­ered: that the sys­tem of mon­ey, of cur­rency issuance, is illu­sory at best, decep­tive at worst. As if to illus­trate this, one truly psy­che­delic item was put up for sale on the Silk Road in July 2011, when a ven­dor named “Ugly­surfer” offered pound weights of Amer­i­can cop­per pen­nies for $207/lb. The face value of the pen­nies was US$18.85, but at the time, cop­per prices were such that the metal con­tained within a Amer­i­can penny was worth almost three cents. Ugly­surfer was demon­strat­ing that the ‘fiat’ sys­tem of money and frac­tional reserve bank­ing, whereby banks can and do cre­ate money from thin air, was not to be trust­ed.

“Under the best con­di­tions, I could walk into a bank and pro­vide US$32 dol­lars in paper Fed­eral Reserve Notes, and walk out with a box of 95 per cent cop­per pen­nies with a metal value of approx­i­mately US$64 (in cop­per)”, he explained. “Not a bad deal! Of course not all of the pen­nies will be 95 per cent cop­per, but the por­tion of 95 per cent cop­per pen­nies in the box have the pro­por­tional gain”, he told me. “I have to sort the cop­per pen­nies from the zinc pen­nies and I have designed a sys­tem to auto­mate the sort­ing based on pat­tern recog­ni­tion of metal com­po­si­tion. So I use tech­nol­ogy to sort and reach a scale of effi­ciency that makes the process profitable. In my opin­ion, fiat cur­ren­cies are doomed sim­ply because of the decep­tion involved. As the pop­u­lace is edu­cated (and it looks like that edu­ca­tion is about to be painfully forced on the mass­es—look at Greece) it will be a force of nature—the destruc­tion of the fiat mod­el. Anonymity or the abil­ity to act anony­mously is a crit­i­cal means to pre­serv­ing indi­vid­ual free­dom in the midst of tyrants. I am a true believer in finan­cial pri­va­cy. My belief is today those that seek per­sonal free­dom become ene­mies of the state (as far as the state is con­cerned) and are in the eyes of the state crim­i­nals. Not unlike those who deal in drugs on Silk Road.”

In 2009 Las­zlo Hancyez, an Amer­i­can pro­gram­mer, made the world’s first pur­chase using bit­coins.13 He sent the bit­coins to a British man who called in a credit card pay­ment transat­lanti­cal­ly. It was a piz­za, and it cost $133,922—a sum worth £75,000 in Novem­ber 2012. Today, many thou­sands of bit­coins are cir­cu­lat­ing around Silk Road users, and around 12,000 per day are spent on the site, at a value in late 2012 of around £7.50 each.

Silk Road users value the cur­rency for its sup­posed anonymi­ty, although it is not entirely untrack­able to the curi­ous and com­pe­tent, nor is it entirely safe. Live by the chip, die by the chip: in June 2011 a user named Allinvain claimed that 25,000 coins had been stolen from his com­put­er. A week lat­er, a hacker com­pro­mised secu­rity at , a Japan­ese firm which han­dles the vast major­ity of cash-to-coin exchange, and pre­tended to be sell­ing off a vast chunk of the cur­ren­cy. As a con­se­quence the price dropped to zero, allow­ing him to steal thou­sands of coins. The sys­tem was then flooded with spec­u­la­tors, forc­ing MtGox to limit with­drawals to US$1,291 worth of bit­coins a day to stem the flow and prop up the dol­lar-value of the cur­ren­cy.14

Net­work ana­lysts Fer­gal Reid and Mar­tin Har­ri­gan of Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Dublin wrote . In it they demon­strated what the high­-tech coin­ing com­mu­nity knew—that the blockchain recorded all trans­ac­tions. Reid posted in a com­ment thread fol­low­ing the release of his paper, “You don’t get anonymity auto­mat­i­cally from the sys­tem. A lot of peo­ple out there think you do.”15

But the deter­mined user can retain anonymity eas­ily enough in the US at least, by enter­ing a bank and pay­ing cash into an exchang­er’s account, for bit­coins are now traded just as dol­lars and euros are. (They now have a value that is decided by the mar­ket. The total bit­coin mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion stood at £72 mil­lion in Novem­ber 2012—with around 10 mil­lion coins val­ued by the sec­ondary mar­ket at around £7.50 each.16) By this method, cash exits the real world, and from there can enter the mias­mic smog of this mar­ket.

Bit­coin addresses are gen­er­ated anony­mously and instant­ly, and infi­nite­ly. You can laun­der bit­coins bought with pounds from your bank account and send it through 100, or 1,000, anony­mous bit­coin accounts that you have gen­er­ated and which you con­trol in just a few hours, then use them to buy drugs. There is no trace, espe­cially if you con­nect to the net with Tor.

And there are many ser­vices online where users can buy other dig­i­tal cur­ren­cies, and con­vert them into bit­coins. is a vir­tual met­al-backed cur­rency from Costa Rica17, pur­chasable auto­mat­i­cally from anony­mous servers with cash pay­ments, whereby par­tic­i­pants swap the trans­ac­tion num­ber for invis­i­ble cur­ren­cies which they can then swap into other cur­ren­cies. You could for a short period in 2011 even buy bit­coin by SMS: users would buy a from Poland, or Bel­gium, or one of a dozen other coun­tries, charge it with cash, send a text and receive their coins to their hand­set. “Mix­ing” ser­vices too, can tum­ble the coins in and out of thou­sands of other bit­coin trans­ac­tions and accounts, mak­ing a dense web of math­e­mat­ics even denser still. When most inves­ti­ga­tors can’t even under­stand the basics of encryp­tion, the like­li­hood that they or a jury mem­ber will reach an under­stand­ing of bit­coin is min­i­mal.

And when most smal­l­-s­cale drug trans­ac­tions are small, under £100, who’s watch­ing? The answer, so far, is that no one has been busted using evi­dence from the bit­coin blockchain18. Bit­coin address­es, where you receive and store coins, are ran­domly gen­er­ated strings of let­ters and num­bers, and there’s no ID check sys­tem—and you can cre­ate another in moments. If that’s not enough, the more para­noid users can use a ser­vice such as Bit­coin Fog, which matches deposits and trans­ac­tions ran­dom­ly, pay­ing out the total you paid in in a series of differ­ent amounts. Then there are instawal­lets, tem­po­rary, one-time-use hold­ing accounts where coins can be stored for a few sec­onds over an anonymized net con­nec­tion and spat out else­where. Or there’s Coina­pult, a jokey ser­vice allow­ing users to sling coins to each other across the ether. There are games such as SatoshiDice, a gam­bling game that allows micro-bets on ran­dom chance algo­rithms. Since the cur­rency is divis­i­ble to eight dec­i­mal places, the thou­sands of tiny bets fur­ther com­pli­cate the block chain and dis­guise crim­i­nal­i­ty.

There’s no deny­ing that this is a minor­ity sport, and that the process is ardu­ous, and can some­times fail com­plete­ly. Online wal­let ser­vices, where coins can be stored on the net, rather than on your com­put­er’s hard dri­ve, are often scams that can eas­ily fleece users. The com­plex­ity of the sys­tem does not lend itself to the kind of impulse pur­chase made by some drug users. But that has­n’t stopped thou­sands of users of the Silk Road from embrac­ing the tech­nol­o­gy. Net­works grow and pro­lif­er­ate if they are pop­u­lat­ed, required and scal­able. Bit­coin, Tor and the Silk Road ful­fill all of these cri­te­ria.

Might this arcane and hid­den world spawn new and differ­ent ver­sions of itself?19 Those who believe this sys­tem is so com­pli­cated that it will never catch on might per­haps con­sider that within liv­ing mem­o­ry, even con­fig­ur­ing basic inter­net access took expert knowl­edge. Nowa­days, we only actu­ally notice our net con­nec­tions exist when they drop.

Encryp­tion is what makes this mar­ket pos­si­ble, and what makes it so hard for law­mak­ers to attack. Encryp­tion works by scram­bling infor­ma­tion and only allow­ing the to decode that infor­ma­tion. The pub­lic key is known to every­body and is pub­lished. The secret key is held only by the recip­i­ent. Alice wants to tell Bob some sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion—or indeed any infor­ma­tion intended only for his eyes. So Alice uses Bob’s pub­lic key to encrypt the mes­sage to him. Bob uses her pri­vate key to unlock, or decrypt the infor­ma­tion. No one else can read it.

In a 1991 paper, , coder and secu­rity spe­cial­ist, and author of the soft­ware pack­age , wrote:

It’s per­son­al. It’s pri­vate. And it’s no one’s busi­ness but yours. You may be plan­ning a polit­i­cal cam­paign, dis­cussing your tax­es, or hav­ing a secret romance. Or you may be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with a polit­i­cal dis­si­dent in a repres­sive coun­try. What­ever it is, you don’t want your pri­vate elec­tronic mail (email) or con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments read by any­one else. There’s noth­ing wrong with assert­ing your pri­va­cy. Pri­vacy is as apple-pie as the Con­sti­tu­tion. The only way to hold the line on pri­vacy in the infor­ma­tion age is strong cryp­tog­ra­phy.20

If gov­ern­ments or police wanted to read the mes­sages between Silk Road users, they’d have to spend years in so-called ‘brute force’ attacks, where hun­dreds of mil­lions of pos­si­ble pass­words are tried one after the oth­er.21

In the UK, though, if you are inves­ti­gated by police and use encryp­tion, and refuse to give your pass­words to inves­ti­ga­tors, you will be charged with a crime and jailed under the (RIPA). No mat­ter what your defence, no mat­ter what crime you are under inves­ti­ga­tion for, even in the absence of any other evi­dence, if you main­tain your right to pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, you will be deemed a crim­i­nal and jailed.

IT web­site The Reg­is­ter reported in 2009 that the first per­son jailed under part III of the RIPA was “a schiz­o­phrenic sci­ence hob­by­ist with no crim­i­nal record”. Found with a model rocket as he returned to Lon­don from Paris, he refused to give police the keys to his encrypted data, indeed, he refused to speak at all, and was jailed for thir­teen months. Six months into his sen­tence the man, named only as JLF, was sec­tioned under the Men­tal Health Act and does not now know when he will be released.22

It’s highly likely that leg­is­la­tors will one day use the men­ace of online drug deals as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for intrud­ing into peo­ple’s pri­va­cy. A happy con­se­quence for the gov­ern­ment of its tar­get­ing of this straw man folk devil will be unfet­tered access to all our pri­vate thoughts and con­ver­sa­tions.

You can never be sure a con­ver­sa­tion is pri­vate with­out encryp­tion, , an Amer­i­can com­puter secu­rity expert who co-founded with Zim­mer­mann, tells me. The Ger­man gov­ern­ment broke encryp­tion mod­els by releas­ing mal­ware and viruses into the wild that can eas­ily unscram­ble voice calls across the net­work, allow­ing it to eaves­drop at will, he tells me—across a Skype line. “In the old days, hun­dreds of years ago peo­ple could speak pri­vately by going out and tak­ing a walk around the green and talk­ing among them­selves and there was no way peo­ple could lis­ten in”, he told me. “Today [with long-dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion so com­mon­place] there’s no good way to do that except by using tech­nol­o­gy. Encryp­tion lets you have a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with any­one else, and that’s needed by busi­ness and any­one that wants to talk in pri­vate.”

The his­tory of encryp­tion is a fas­ci­nat­ing tale of early net pri­vacy cam­paign­ers fac­ing down the gov­ern­men­t—and win­ning. From the 1970s onwards, encryp­tion was con­sid­ered mil­i­tary hard­ware and could not be exported from the US. In 1995 Phil Zim­mer­mann had the source code for PGP printed in book form and sent to Ger­many from the US, since the export of lit­er­a­ture was not banned. An engi­neer in Ger­many scanned the code, recom­piled it and dis­trib­uted it online. The export regimes were even­tu­ally lib­er­al­ized, as the gov­ern­ment had to accept that encryp­tion was noth­ing more than maths. “These net­works were not designed to respect orders”, dead­pans Callas.

Could gov­ern­ments roll back encryp­tion advances in order to pre­vent online drug deal­ing, and halt secret com­mu­ni­ca­tions? “I think the tooth­paste is out of the tube”, says Callas. “Cryp­tog­ra­phy, in some form, is used by peo­ple every day all the time. When­ever you buy some­thing online, your pur­chase details and deliv­ery details are all encrypt­ed. There are rea­sons for that—there are gangs that want to steal your info and defraud peo­ple with it. The real­ity is that among the other prob­lems soci­ety has, includ­ing the Mafia steal­ing from old ladies, the way to pro­tect them is encryp­tion. It is flat tech­no­log­i­cally impos­si­ble to man­age encryp­tion”, he told me.

Callas is cer­tain gov­ern­ment will focus on the drugs issue in the upcom­ing debates around encryp­tion and pri­va­cy. “Encryp­tion is why the big is being built. The NSA under­stands it is a new cen­tury and they need new tech­nol­ogy for what they are doing”, he said. The new NSA facil­ity is a data-har­vest­ing plant in the desert near Utah. It will cost two bil­lion dol­lars to build, will mea­sure a mil­lion square feet, and will be able to store 500 quin­til­lion pages of infor­ma­tion. It is Callas’ belief that this cen­tre is being built for traffic analy­sis pur­poses23—see­ing who is talk­ing to whom, how often and for how long—and to engi­neer pass­word-break­ing tech­nolo­gies. Though encryp­tion is essen­tially uncrack­able, pass­words are gen­er­ally triv­ial to break. Traffic analy­sis can also be used to gather valu­able data on com­mu­ni­ca­tions that have passed through Tor.

In just under two years, the Silk Road admin­is­tra­tors have used tech­nol­ogy and inge­nu­ity, along with inno­v­a­tive crowd­sourc­ing solu­tions to inter­nal and exter­nal threats, to achieve what thou­sands of cam­paign­ers have toiled since the 1960s to achieve: the right for peo­ple to buy and sell nat­ural and arti­fi­cial chem­i­cals that affect their con­scious­ness in ways they choose with­out inter­fer­ence from the state. It is a par­a­digm shift that can­not eas­ily be reversed.

The growth of Silk Road may have pro­voked the very pub­lic forced clo­sure in 2012 of one of the net’s longest-s­tand­ing online drugs mar­kets. The Farmer’s Mar­ket, or TFM as it was known, was an acci­dent, or more accu­rate­ly, a bust, wait­ing to hap­pen. The site oper­ated for a num­ber of years as an email-only ser­vice at adamflowers@hushmail.com. Lat­er, it ran its busi­ness on the anonymiz­ing Tor net­work but, fool­ish­ly, even there, used the encrypted email ser­vice to serve its thou­sands of inter­na­tional cus­tomers rather than using its own encryp­tion. The site sold main­stream psychedelics—MDMA, LSD, ket­a­mine and high­-po­tency mar­i­juana and hashish, along with DMT, mush­rooms and . Its ven­dors were con­nois­seurs, and offered rare cannabis strains and seeds sel­dom avail­able any­where else. It was mainly a bou­tique online mar­i­juana store and its descrip­tions showed the exper­tise of the obses­sive.

TFM’s exis­tence was an open secret in the online drug deal­ing and pur­chas­ing com­mu­ni­ty—­far too open. The only star­tling thing about the clo­sure was that it took so long. The site was like a pro­to-Silk Road, but cru­cial­ly, as court papers would reveal in 2012, it accepted pay­ment meth­ods that were trace­able and inse­cure. Users could join the site with no invi­ta­tion, and there­fore with no back­ground or rep­u­ta­tion checks. With its drop-down menus and creaky lo-fi design and jagged fonts, it felt a rather rus­tic kind of place, an arti­sanal street mar­ket—if street mar­kets had rick­ety oak bar­rels filled with pounds of free-flow­ing crys­tal ket­a­mine and fra­grant sprigs of mar­i­juana rather than sin­gle-es­tate coffee beans and over­priced sour­dough bread.

The bust came one year after main­stream media out­lets became aware of the Silk Road’s exis­tence; it was a show­boat­ing exer­cise to sat­isfy polit­i­cal pres­sure from the US to do some­thing about the new inter­net drug men­ace—and maybe to scare off users from buy­ing drugs online gen­er­al­ly. The bust was hardly hi-tech, nor was it par­tic­u­larly inge­nious, how­ever much the police attempted to por­tray it that way. Under­cover agents infil­trated the net­work pos­ing as buy­ers, and sim­ply made orders that revealed the net­work’s inter­na­tional links, names, bank account details of the recip­i­ents of funds, and addresses con­nected to the deal­ers.

Every crim­i­nal enter­prise has a weak point, and one of TFM’s most fun­da­men­tal errors was that it took pay­ment via var­i­ous inse­cure and far-from anony­mous means, from to West­ern Union inter­na­tional trans­fers. They also accepted iGolder, a , and Pecu­nix, a sim­i­lar cur­ren­cy, which stores its ingots in Swiss vaults but is incor­po­rated in Pana­ma, the Cen­tral Amer­i­can bank­ing pow­er­house that bor­ders Colom­bia to the south and east.

The Pecu­nix pay­ments were laun­dered through var­i­ous Pay­Pal accounts, and then sent through var­i­ous accounts in Hun­gary, West­ern Union pay­ments skip­ping across con­ti­nents to become bal­ances on-screen in iGolder and Pecu­nix accounts, and back, and forth until TFM’s deal­ers thought, mis­tak­en­ly, that the money was crisply laun­dered. They were wrong. The trans­ac­tions had been tracked through these sys­tems; the paper trail was easy to fol­low. If they’d used bit­coin, the site’s oper­a­tors would be free men today.

The indict­ment alleged that between Jan­u­ary 2007 and Octo­ber 2009, The Farmer’s Mar­ket processed 5,256 orders with a value of US$1.35 mil­lion. The site had over 3,000 cus­tomers in thir­ty-five coun­tries, includ­ing buy­ers in every state of the USA. Forty-t­wo-year-old Marc Willem, the lead defen­dant also known as adamflowers, was arrested on 2012-04-16 in . The day before, Michael Evron, an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen liv­ing in , was arrested as he attempted to leave Colom­bia. Six other deal­ers and accom­plices were arrested at their homes through­out Amer­i­ca. At the time of research, none of their 3,000 cus­tomers had been tar­get­ed. The indict­ment ran to six­ty-six pages, and doc­u­mented hun­dreds of drug deals that the group had admin­is­tered. The net­work was huge, cov­er­ing coun­tries in Cen­tral, Latin and North Amer­i­ca, East­ern and main­land Europe. The men were charged before the United States Dis­trict Court for the Cen­tral Dis­trict of Cal­i­for­nia on charges of con­spir­acy to dis­trib­ute con­trolled sub­stances, con­spir­acy to laun­der mon­ey, dis­tri­b­u­tion of LSD, aid­ing and abet­ting, con­tin­u­ing crim­i­nal enter­prise and crim­i­nal for­fei­ture. When the news broke online, pan­icked chat­ter spread across dozens of sites.

Police called the group “sophis­ti­cated” and said it used “advanced anonymiz­ing online tech­nol­ogy”. This was not true; the group used pro­pri­etary encryp­tion on a web­mail ser­vice, Hush­mail, which pub­licly stated it would coop­er­ate with police if asked to do so. The “advanced anonymiz­ing soft­ware” was sim­ply Tor, which, though it is indeed advanced, is some­thing even the most tech­ni­cally illit­er­ate web user can use eas­ily24. Bri­ane Grey of the DEA said the oper­a­tion—­named Adam Bomb—“should send a clear mes­sage to orga­ni­za­tions that are using tech­nol­ogy to con­duct crim­i­nal activ­ity that the DEA and our law enforce­ment part­ners will track them down and bring them to jus­tice.”25 The police’s inten­tion was to give the impres­sion they had infil­trated an elab­o­rate and com­plex mar­ket; they had not—they had just sent a few emails and issued a few sub­poe­nas to fol­low the mon­ey.

In the final analy­sis, TFM was low-hang­ing fruit for the police, and in grab­bing it, they merely showed their hand early and revealed the weak points of any online peer-to-peer drug smug­gling net­work—­com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pay­ment. The slew of news sto­ries also told any­one who was lis­ten­ing that it was pos­si­ble to buy drugs online, and that it was the deal­ers, rather than the site’s 3,000 happy users that the police were tar­get­ing.

The Silk Road’s pay­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems remain essen­tially impen­e­tra­ble.26 It’s here on the Silk Road that the early net evan­ge­lists’ vision of a world where infor­ma­tion flows freely, where no cen­tral hier­ar­chy rules, and where the net­work takes prece­dence over the indi­vid­ual has finally been real­ized. Whether you cel­e­brate or lament the fact that drugs such as cocaine, heroin and LSD are now avail­able online with just a lit­tle effort and very lit­tle like­li­hood of legal con­se­quences, it is unde­ni­able that we are at a turn­ing point in legal his­to­ry.

Through a decades-long process of chem­i­cal and tech­ni­cal inno­va­tion, drug users and pro­duc­ers have beaten the laws made by a polit­i­cal sys­tem whose only response to increased drug use is a harm­ful, expen­sive, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and ulti­mately failed strat­egy of crim­i­nal­iza­tion.

Over the course of the cen­tury or so that drug laws have existed in any mean­ing­ful form, a clear pat­tern has emerged. As each law to pre­vent drug con­sump­tion is made, a means to cir­cum­vent it is sought, and found. Those means can be chem­i­cal, legal, social or tech­no­log­i­cal. We stand today at a cross­roads formed by those four ele­ments, with the web mak­ing pos­si­ble com­mu­ni­ca­tion between dis­tant strangers, facil­i­tat­ing the shar­ing of lim­it­less quan­ti­ties of infor­ma­tion, and enabling the dis­tri­b­u­tion of drugs any­where in the world. Where do we go next?

“Prohibition in the Digital Age”

…Deal­ers who profit from the sale of banned drugs can have a clearer view of than many other com­men­ta­tors. I con­ducted an in-depth inter­view with one of the most pop­u­lar ven­dors of MDMA on the Silk Road, dis­cussing the legal­iza­tion of drugs across an encrypted email con­nec­tion. “The biggest issue I have with legal­iza­tion is quan­ti­fy­ing the pros and cons, what infor­ma­tion do you base your deci­sion on? Which met­ric is most impor­tant? Is it addic­tion rates, acute risk, eco­nomic cost, fam­ily break­down, crime rates? It’s easy to look at the grue­some pro­hi­bi­tion-fu­eled civil war in Mex­i­co, the pri­vate prison indus­try in the US, the gang-fight­ing over drugs that goes on in every city and draw the con­clu­sion that legal­iza­tion is the only humane and rea­son­able alter­na­tive, because all of those injus­tices are bla­tant and grue­some. It’s harder to weigh the less appar­ent con­se­quences, the sub­tle per­sonal issues that easy access to drugs brings”, he said.

“As a dealer/vendor I get to see a much closer view of these prob­lems, both in myself and oth­ers, and frankly it often upsets me. Many times I’ve had to stop sell­ing to clients because they devel­oped seri­ous addic­tion issues. I know peo­ple who use MDMA every week and suffer seri­ous mem­ory and cog­ni­tive prob­lems because of it; peo­ple who can’t stop using coke despite not even enjoy­ing it any more, peo­ple who have to pop just to make it through the day. See­ing it really wears me down. How many more peo­ple would there be like that if they could pop down to the con­ve­nience store and pick up an eight-ball of cocaine? Would they ulti­mately be bet­ter off if given access to what­ever they wanted along with sub­si­dized harm reduc­tion and treat­ment pro­grammes if need­ed? It’s not an easy ques­tion to answer at all. I used to think that peo­ple should ulti­mately have agency over their own bod­ies and what they put in them, that the world was over­whelm­ingly worse off with pro­hi­bi­tion than with­out it. I still feel that way, but over the past few years my view has become much more con­flict­ed.”

In Europe, only Por­tu­gal has —of drugs far more harm­ful and addic­tive than the most pop­u­lar recre­ational drugs whose effects many research chem­i­cals and legal highs seek to emu­late.

See Also

  1. Silk Road began oper­at­ing in Jan­u­ary 2011; it was shut down a lit­tle under 3 years lat­er, in Octo­ber 2013 (half a year after Drugs 2.0 was pub­lished). –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  2. Author of Ket­a­mine: Dreams and Real­i­ties (ebook) –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  3. “fish scale cocaine”; >90% puri­ty. Typ­i­cally cocaine is “cut” (adul­ter­at­ed) before being sold to the end-cus­tomers. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  4. Ross William Ulbricht, a Texan man; arrested 2013-10-02, simul­ta­ne­ous with the shut­down of SR by the FBI. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  5. Nico­las Christin, , Carnegie Mel­lon INI/CyLab, July 2012 [Christin released a more accu­rate ver­sion in 2013, . –Ed­i­tor]↩︎

  6. 5onwnspjvuk7cwvk.onion; founded 2011-06-09, still oper­at­ing as of 2013-10-19, albeit with diffi­cul­ties. BMR is far from the only com­peti­tor to SR, espe­cially post-S­R-bust. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  7. Iron­i­cal­ly, it seems that Silk Road was being hosted in Ice­land between June & Octo­ber 2013. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  8. “Prob­a­bly” is an extreme under­state­ment. There are no cred­i­ble reports of these sites ever deliv­er­ing on a hit, and it only takes one “$12,483 up front” to make the scam worth­while. Even the oper­a­tor of Silk Road, DPR/Ross Ulbricht, was appar­ently scammed not just once but twice by claims of hits. See also ‘Besa Mafia’. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  9. “Don’t Fol­low the Money”, Rich 2005.↩︎

  10. Royal Mail Spokesman response quoted on “Royal Mail: Do they always deliv­er?”↩︎

  11. Hid­den in the code for the Gen­e­sis Block was this sen­tence, cit­ing a Times of Lon­don report: “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chan­cel­lor on brink of sec­ond bailout for banks”.↩︎

  12. From one per­spec­tive, it is ele­gant. Com­pared to pre­vi­ous dig­i­tal cur­ren­cies, it is very ugly. For details, see . –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  13. “The Rise and Fall of Bit­coin”, Wal­lace 2011 (Wired)↩︎

  14. Ibid.↩︎

  15. “An Analy­sis of Anonymity in the Bit­coin Sys­tem”, Reid & Har­ri­gan 2011↩︎

  16. As of 2013-10-19, there are now 11.828m bit­coins val­ued at a total of $2.63 bil­lion. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  17. Actu­ally “Lib­erty Reserve”; Power has pos­si­bly con­fused it with the sim­i­lar ser­vice. Lib­erty Reserve was shut down in May 2013 and 7 peo­ple pros­e­cut­ed. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  18. This is true. All up to ~2014 have been based on evi­dence unre­lated to analy­sis of the blockchain; blockchain analy­sis and AML report­ing started account­ing for the occa­sional arrest after that. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  19. Yes. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  20. “Why I Wrote PGP; Part of the Orig­i­nal 1991 PGP User’s Guide (up­dated in 1999)”↩︎

  21. This assumes they actu­ally used encryp­tion. Avail­able evi­dence indi­cates that well over half of SR’s users did­n’t both­er. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  22. “UK jails schiz­o­phrenic for refusal to decrypt files: Ter­ror squad arrest over model rocket”, The Reg­is­ter↩︎

  23. An accu­rate belief, given the whistle­blow­ing. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  24. More impor­tant­ly, Farmer’s Mar­ket spent only a short time oper­at­ing as a hid­den ser­vice; for most of its lifes­pan, it was clear­net. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  25. US Attor­ney’s Office press release, 2012-04-16; “Cre­ators and Oper­a­tors of On-line Nar­cotics Mar­ket­place on the TOR Net­work Arrested on First of Its Kind Fed­eral Indict­ment Charg­ing Drug Traffick­ing in 34 Coun­tries and 50 States”.↩︎

  26. It is cur­rently impos­si­ble to do a full SR post-mortem but it seems clear that the Bit­coin blockchain was use­less to the FBI/DEA inves­ti­ga­tion, as was break­ing Tor or PGP; the­o­ries gen­er­ally revolve around Ulbricht’s cur­rent­ly-in­ex­plic­a­ble deci­sion to make a pay­ment to a fed­eral agent from an Aus­tralian bank account, an inter­cepted ship­ment of IDs, dis­cov­er­ing care­less­ly-ex­posed clues to his iden­ti­ty, and flip­ping a SR employ­ee. –Ed­i­tor↩︎