As more details trickle out about the Silk Road bust and the arrest of its owner, Ross Ulbricht (aka Dread Pirate Roberts), one thing’s for sure: if the internet is the natural home of drug selling, money laundering and black market deals, it’s also great for another thing. Conspiracy theories.
Reddit and 4chan were buzzing all night with rumours, paranoia, and cries of foul, to the point where the Silk Road subreddit was briefly made members only over fears of privacy. Here, we collect the craziest and most out-there (or are they?) theories about the closure of the deepweb's favourite drug marketplace. Don't go too far down the rabbithole – you don't know who might be watching.
Ulbricht isn’t the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts
Back in August, Dread Pirate Roberts gave an interview to Forbes where he claimed that he “[took] the reins” of Silk Road from its founder, the original Dread Pirate Roberts. The FBI charge sheet says Ulbricht founded and ran the site, but Silk Road users say that this interview proves that the original DPR is out there – and that he might try to reclaim his lost creation.
It’s all part of the (bitcoin) plan
Bitcoin has struggled with its image as the cryptocurrency du jour for drug dealers and money launderers, and its close association with Silk Road certainly didn’t help. Now that the drug marketplace is out of the picture, there’s speculation that bitcoin will now gain mainstream traction – which is great, of course, if you were an early adopter.
Once Silk Road went down, the value of bitcoin dropped 20% over three hours. It’s not as bad as the crash in April, where the currency lost half its value in six hours when an anonymous owner started distributing BTC for free on Reddit, but it does lead some to speculate that there are some people who are probably buying a lot of bitcoins right now. What goes down must come up, right?
The FBI haven’t really seized the website
Users have been comparing the FBI seizure notice on the site with other similar notices, and some things don’t match: most crucially, why would the FBI go to the extent of photoshopping the Silk Road logo of a camel onto its notice?
There’s some dispute over whether the feds have actually seized the Silk Road servers, since the discussion forums on the site are still running (a forum mod, samesamebutdifferent, thinks it’s ‘highly likely’ the forums are compromised). But some speculate that Dread Pirate Roberts had a ‘kill switch’ programmed in where if he didn’t log in for a day, the site would automatically disable access. Which means that somewhere, an admin might have access to the ‘on’ switch.
Atlantis knew this was coming
Silk Road’s newest competitor, Atlantis, abruptly closed shop in late September due to “security issues” – baffling a fair few buyers and even the marketing guy behind its highly publicised viral ad (above). Why put so much effort into building a drugs marketplace and then fold six months in? Answer: they knew the FBI was closing in, and they got out while they still had a chance. Or, if you want to raise the conspiracy stakes, the FBI closed in on them first and they offered to give up some intel on Ulbricht. Spooky.
This is a wholesale crackdown on Tor
The deepweb isn’t all drugs and paedo-bait: there's a lot of reasons why a super-secure internet like The Onion Router is highly helpful to people like activists and journalists. But law enforcement has been tightening the net on Tor and its associates for some time now: in May, the owners of Liberty Reserve, an anonymous internet payment system, were indicted and accused of laundering $6 billion. Last month, the FBI exploited a vulnerability in Tor security to arrest the admin of a child pornography site in Ireland. All of which suggests two possibilities: that the deepweb is either dead for good – or that it needs to go deeper.
Is it just me or does that 'hit' that Silk Road guy allegedly tried to commission seem so fake? If FBI thought it was real, why not step in?— Reyhan Harmanci (@harmancipants) October 2, 2013
The FBI set up the murder
According to the original charge sheet, Ulbricht arranged the murder of a blackmailer to a blackmailer who was threatening to release the names of several thousand SR vendors – now he’s also been charged with witness murder after he hired an undercover agent to bump off an ex-Silk Road employee who made off with his money.
There are theories that the blackmailer and the assassin-for-hire were fakes, conjured up by the FBI for entrapment purposes; there are theories that the charge is entirely false and Ulbricht never arranged a contract killing. (The ex-employee is less easy to explain; Ulbricht apparently approached the agent himself.)
Why would the FBI do it? To further discredit Ulbricht and turn public opinion against him, apparently. It’s one thing to make an example out of a unassuming-looking physics graduate from Texas – it’s another to make an example out of someone who tried to get a man with a wife and kids killed.
The NSA was behind this
The Tor Project, the guys behind the software, noticed a significant spike in usage back in August and were unable to decipher its cause. This may have been a federal agency – like, say, the NSA – flooding the site with bots or other computers in order to conduct surveillance on Silk Road. As theregister.co.uk notes, there was nothing in the otherwise comprehensive charge sheet about how the FBI gained access to the Tor server – which might indicate the assistance of the American shadow agency du jour.
The US government needed the cash
When the FBI arrested Ulbricht, it also seized $3.6 million worth of Bitcoins. In theory, all funds seized by Department of Justice agencies like the FBI goes into an asset forfeiture fund for the department, and the money is usually filtered back to local area law enforcement. Either way, that makes the US government one of the world’s largest holders of Bitcoin. Obviously, that has very interesting implications for the future of this cryptocurrency… And it might go some way towards alleviating the budget cuts that the FBI is currently facing.
Who is Christopher Tarbell?
The FBI agent in charge of the investigation, Special Agent Christopher Tarbell, is proving to be something of bugbear to the shady internet underworld. He also played a part in the arrest of Sabu, a main player-turned-informant in Lulzsec, a hacking group that took delight in attacking government sites like the CIA. An NYMag described him as “tall, balding”. (Is that you, Hank Schrader?) So the question is: who is Christopher Tarbell, and what kind of info has he got on you?
The silk road was awesome im gonna miss it.— Nishino (@Tsukasa_iLy) October 3, 2013
This isn’t the end
"This is a terrible end to a beautiful thing, please try to remember what we were doing here, this goes so far beyond just scoring drugs on the internet… please hold on to the core reasons that brought us here and what made this place unique and such an incredibly important force for positive change in the world." As the forum sign-off from this Silk Road moderator proves, the idea of Silk Road – a free-for-all market driven by libertarian ideals – is very much alive.
As one snarky Redditor noted, “Napster is down – this is the END of illegal file sharing!” As we all know, Napster’s death just drove users to other file-sharing juggernauts like the Pirate Bay and later on, MegaUpload (RIP). Indeed, there’s already speculation on how a next generation Silk Road could work, and shadier and less-trusted alternatives like Black Market Reloaded already exist. As the mod puts it in his or her farewell: "Travel safe, roaders."
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing