Silk Road closed down by the FBI, alleged founder identified and arrested

Graham Cluley

Silk RoadSilk Road, the underground marketplace that made millions of dollars by allowing users to buy and sell hard drugs, firearms, and computer hacking tools, has been shut down by the US authorities.

Inaccessible to most internet users, Silk Road existed on the “dark web”, part of the internet only accessible via the Tor network – which masked the identities of the computers visiting it.

Silk Road transactions are paid for with Bitcoins, rather than traditional currency, helping to further conceal the true identities of those buying and selling the illicit goods. Silk Road earns commission, of up to 15%, of any transaction made.

Silk Road seized

According to FBI, Silk Road generated more than $1.2 billion in online sales during its three years of operation – a truly staggering figure, which gives an indication of the amount of criminal activity that passed through its systems.

Ross UlbrichtOn Tuesday, the FBI arrested the man they believe to be the mastermind behind Silk Road – 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht, at a public library in San Francisco. According to the authorities, Ulbricht is the true identity of “Dread Pirate Roberts” (aka “DPR”) who owns and operates the criminal website.

The 39-page criminal complaint [PDF] against Ulbricht makes fascinating reading, and charges Ulbricht with narcotics trafficking, computer hacking offences and money laundering.

But more than that, there’s also the claim that in March 2013, Ulbricht attempted to hire a hitman to kill a Silk Road user who was threatening to release the identities of the site’s users after a dispute over a drugs debt.

Yes, I know, it sounds like an episode of “Breaking Bad”.

Alleged attempt to hire contract killer

The authorities say that they seized some 26,000 bitcoins (worth $3.6 million) when they apprehended Ulbricht.

If you care to explore the likes of Google Plus and LinkedIn, it looks like Ross Ulbricht hasn’t been too wary of leaving his digital fingerprints online.

And, if the indictment against him is to be believed, it was digital carelessness that may have brought the authorities to his door. The fascinating criminal complaint describes in painstaking detail how investigators trawled through internet records, uncovering IP addresses, false email accounts, and linking posts made on a variety of forums – where “Dread Pirate Roberts” sometimes forgot to adequately disguise his true identity.

As the BBC describes:

Further activity attributed to Mr Ulbricht took place on Stack Overflow – a question and answer website for programmers – where a user named Frosty asked questions about intricate coding that later became part of the source code of Silk Road.

In another apparent slip-up, one of Frosty’s messages initially identified itself as being written by Ross Ulbricht – before being quickly corrected.

Stackoverflow profile for Frosty

Once again, a suspected computer criminal might have been tripped up by their own sloppiness and some meticulous policework.

Further reading:

Graham Cluley Graham Cluley is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s when he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and is an international public speaker on the topic of computer security, hackers, and online privacy. Follow him on Twitter at @gcluley, or drop him an email.

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