The story of Silk Road, the online marketplace on which criminals traded drugs and “assassinations” is one of the most fascinating stories you will find today, and will no doubt make a best-selling blockbuster movie in the future.
Sadly though, this story didn’t have a happy ending for Ross Ulbricht who set up the site in February 2011, and is now facing life in prison with no opportunity of parole after being convicted in May 2015 following a lengthy investigation by the FBI and global Drug Enforcement Agencies.
The sentence has sent shockwaves around the world, with many arguing that it is far too harsh considering Ross is a first time offender and that murderers, rapists and serial killers including Charles Manson in comparison have received lesser sentences.
All of the charges brought against Ross are for non-violent crimes, and his conviction was purely on the basis of “Running a website that permitted these actions”. According to this logic, Mark Zuckerberg would equally be responsible for providing a platform for drug deals on Facebook, and should be subject to a criminal hearing facing the same charges. Clearly Ross is simply being used to set an example for any would-be deep web entrepreneurs.
What you may have heard in the media is far from the truth, so at Sonarz we bring you the true un-edited story of just how Ross ended up in jail, the corruption and illegalities used by the FBI / DEA to secure his conviction, and the dangerous precedent his conviction sets, that could affect everyones future freedoms on the internet.
The Un-Told Story Of Silk Road…
Ross is an intelligent guy, let’s just make that clear from he outset. He attended the University of Texas at Dallas on a full academic scholarship, and graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He then attended Pennsylvania State University, where he was in a master’s degree program in materials science and engineering and studied crystallography and was a successful author of a number of academic papers, including; “Polymeric solar cells with oriented and strong transparent carbon nanotube anode.”
By the time Ulbricht graduated from Penn State, his interest in his major waned and was replaced by the “libertarian economic theory” which then took over his life. His LinkedIn profile at the time stated;
Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an “economic simulation” to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force
It was these philosophical underpinnings that eventually made Ross one of the Worlds Most Wanted criminals and it could be said, the inspiration behind Silk Road.
In its heyday, Silk Road was by far the largest drug emporium on the internet. Estimates of its traffic ranged from $15m to as much as $50m in transactions every month and when Ulbricht was caught. Authorities say they had managed to seize 144,000 Bitcoins, worth $28.5 million at the present exchange rate, making it the largest seizure of crypto currency ever.
After a 3 year investigation, Ulbright was eventually arrested at the Glen Park Branch Library in San Francisco on Oct 1 2013, in a sting operation set-up to catch him red-handed on his laptop. Security agent Jared Deryeghiayan who had been working undercover as a Silk Road employee earning $1000 a week in BitCoin for over a year, sent a message to Ulbricht claiming there to be a “technical problem” with the site, encouraging Ross to login at check. At this point, two Federal Agents entered and staged a fake argument which distracted Ross long enough to allow another agent positioned next to Ross to steal his laptop, arresting him on the spot and put him on trial for allegedly running the worlds first billion dollar DeepWeb marketplace.
The FBI’s evidence presented in court as to how they finally tracked Ulbright is being heavily debated, especially within the online security community who are quick to point out that the explanation given “Doesn’t really make sense to anyone who knows anything about Tor and how web application security works,”
In the summer of 2013, FBI agents claim they “stumbled” into Ulbricht IP address by way of a “leaky” CAPTCHA on the homepage of the site. For a website like Silk Road, an online black market, you can imagine the scrutiny it was under at all times. How many people would have tried to hack Silk Road knowing there was no legal repercussion for their actions? The FBI is claiming this huge flaw which amounts to Ross simply leaving a “key” to his “house”, under the mat, is really hard to accept, and an idea that has come under much scepticism.
Despite this claim, the prosecution have yet to provide any documentation or forensic proof that this was how they gained access to the server, and as Ross Ulbricht’s defence correctly argue, “It simply doesn’t suffice”.
This sets a very dangerous precedent on numerous levels as The Justice Department prosecuting Ulbricht told the judge that; “Even if the FBI had broken into the server remotely without a warrant, it would still be legal according to government filing”. So apparently, The Government can now illegally hack into any computers they like and should they happen to find evidence then this is now admissible in court. Can you see how this could have dramatic implications for future cases?
The “evidence” that was used to convict Ross is also highly questionable, as almost all of it was based on “Digital evidence”, which lowers the standard of the evidence tremendously, mainly because it is very easily created, edited and, well, faked. It’s surprising to note that even a mortgage company won’t take a screenshot of a bank statement as evidence for these very reasons, and this has been used to put a man in prison for the rest of his life
The trial of Ulbricht has been nothing short of a farce. Ulbright was effectively sentenced before he even took the stand which is in complete contradiction to one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system of being “Innocent before being proven guilty” . New York Senator Chuck Shumer in my opinion is the reason why Ross would never be allowed a fair hearing.
Schumer was extremely vocal about Silk Road since its launch, and put increasing pressure of the DEA’s to close down the site throughout the course of its investigation. When Ulbright was finally arrested in late 2013 in LA, Schumer insisted the trial be heard in New York where he is Senator and could use his influence to “recommend” Katherine Forrest to be the judge presiding over the case. Schemer has also been openly congratulating the agents prior to the trial for their “great work”, which again seem like a conflict of interests for the due process of an “impartial” judiciary.
The trial itself, posed many difficulties for Ross’s defence as decisions were made by Judge Forrest that didn’t allow Ross to defend himself fully during the course of the trial; Cross examination of the prosecution was curtailed, Information that an agent gave under oath, was not deemed “relevant” and the jury were told to “forget they ever heard about it” and Witnesses for Ross’s defence who wanted to challenge the Federal witnesses were blocked from speaking. So without the witnesses and the ability to cross examine to prosecution, its almost impossible to ever expect a fair trial.
Since the trial, new evidence has come to light that two corrupt agents working on the case were using their access to the Silk Road severs for almost a year to steal over a million dollars. This particular piece of evidence is now a strong part of Ross’s appeal, as Ross’s mother Lynn explains;
“How can you trust evidence from the server, and the site when these corrupt agents had access to the site the entire time”
Another part of the key points of the prosecution that many of you will have read in the sensationalised media, is that Ross allegedly commissioned the murders of a total of six people through would-be hitmen he contacted online. These allegations were never proven neither were there any evidence of assassinations , but used solely to deprive Ulbricht of bail, as well as in the prosecution against him. Ross has never been charged or convicted for any of these alleged crimes.
These clearly underhand tactics were used throughout by the prosecution by playing on the emotions of the jury to secure a conviction on unsubstantiated claims. They also claimed that as a result of Silk Road, one of the members of the site died using drugs bought on the site, despite the fact that an independent pathology report from Ulbright’s defence proved “Inconclusive” and the guy had just been discharged from the hospital after suffering from Pneumonia….
The irony in all this is that taking down Silk Road has done nothing to stop the war on drugs. In-fact it has achieved the opposite as due to the high profile nature of the case, it has proven to be the best marketing ever for any would-be DeepWeb drug seller. There are now more Marketplaces online now than ever, and despite the heavy sentence handed down to Ulbricht more are opening every day.
Many will argue that drugs are bad and dangerous and I am not defending Silk Road as such, but there has been numerous academic studies since the trial also backed by the Global Drug Survey 2015 that Silk Road actually saved lives and made the “Industry” much safer as a result due to the feedback system of the sellers, and more importantly removing the violence aspect from the drug world.
So whilst many in the DEA are currently patting themselves on the back for a “Job well done”, they have ironically made the “industry” much less “regulated”, promoted the deep web to the masses, and brought the fight back down to the street level again, achieving nothing apart from putting a man in prison for the rest of his life.
Ross is currently appealing the sentence and if you wish to help with his legal fight, you can visit freeross.org. Now, I know that the idea of donating to a “criminal” who has facilitated the sale of over $1 Billion worth of illegal substances is a little hard to understand, but if you truly value your freedoms then this case is vital to support, as otherwise It will set precedent for the 21st century for new laws and interpretations that could impact the future and freedoms of the Internet.