Darknet future in question after Silk Road shutdown

Silk Road
Screenshot of the encrypted drug marketplace Silk Road.

It has been a nervous week for the darknet, following the downfall of Dread Pirate Roberts and his multimillion dollar online drug empire Silk Road. The FBI has seized details and funds from thousands of users of the encrypted website, following the arrest of the Pirate’s alleged alter-ego Ross Ulbricht earlier this month.

“I’m worried because we don’t know what names they have,” said Dean, a regular user who has lost around $1,000. He is right to be – in the following days, several leading vendors have also been arrested.

But Dean and his fellow users are not worried enough to kick the habit, and Silk Road’s competitors are benefiting. “There is a new site with a better interface and it’s clear that the Silk Road retailers are willing to do business there. I don’t see much disruption.”

The confidence comes from the belief that Ulbricht made mistakes, and the FBI file shows he left personal details in public forums. However, NSA files reveal attempts to hack the site’s encryption package TOR, with some success.

“TOR is not broken,” maintains Runa Sandvik, security expert at the company. But she adds that staying anonymous under investigation “is a monumental task”.

Some users are moving to peer-to-peer deals with trusted dealers, but the market could also move to another level.

“In the short term I see more small, niche sites becoming popular,” says Eileen Ormsby, author of an upcoming book on the darknet. “Eventually someone will build up the trust and clientele Silk Road had. One of the worrying things is the FBI has come out claiming it had a $1.2bn turnover in 2.5 years, it will probably put it on the radar of organised crime gangs.”

That would upset a community that believes it has a principled system. A moderator wrote that Pirate Roberts proved that “free people can engage in consensual free-market transactions.”

The FBI itself states that Silk Road drugs were less dangerous as they were higher quality, that they were generally for personal use, and that the system worked without “friction” across borders. Ulbricht’s supporters argue he has bypassed the hugely damaging ‘war on drugs’, and are campaigning for his trial to be nullified.

If that comes to nothing, there will still be a legacy. “This way is safer, easier and people like it,” says Dean. “We’re not going back to the streets.”


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