Anti-drug agencies from around the world cried victory last week when they took down the popular, underground marketplace Website Silk Road. Silk Road was an online mecca for drugs of all kinds, including anabolic steroids.
So far there have been nine arrests in the Silk Road bust, starting with the site’s “mastermind” Ross William Ulbricht who was caught using a computer at a San Francisco public library. Other arrests were made in Bellevue Washington as well as in England and Sweden.
Silk Road was one of a network of “hidden” sites on the internet which is also known as the Deep Web. These hidden sites use a sophisticated program called Tor which masks the IP addresses and identities of its users as well as the online currency Bitcoin which is a decentralized currency that can be used to shield transactions from federal agencies.
Silk Road was around for several years and has even been featured in magazines such as Wired as early as June of 2011. But despite its notoriety, federal authorities have never been able to shut it down until now.
Deep Web whack-a-mole
In a press release after the drug sweep, Britain’s Crime agency said, “these latest arrests are just the start; there are many more to come. The hidden Internet isn’t hidden and your anonymous activity isn’t anonymous. We know where you are, what you are doing and we will catch you.”
Despite that rather Orwellian statement and the very public drug busts that came with the shuttering on Silk Road, the Deep Web as of now shows no sign of stopping. A simple search for Silk Road alternatives will lead you to other hidden sites like Sheep Marketplace and Black Marketplace Reloaded. And that is just using Google. Poke around on sites like Reddit and you can find even more Deep Web drug marketplaces.
It seems that, just like in the real, the war on drugs in cyberspace has merely created a digital version of the game of whack-a-mole, where when one dealer (or site) gets busted, another is there to pop up and take its place.
And for good reason. The FBI estimates that Silk Road has facilitated over $1 billion of illegal Bitcoin transactions alone. And because of the decentralized nature of Bitcoin, it would be very difficult to estimate the amount of money the other sites have helped with drug transactions.
But could this be the end?
“Any large sellers on Silk Road should be very nervous,” said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher with the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley and the University of California, San Diego in an interview with the Associated Press. Because the FBI was able to catch Ulbricht with a hard drive that contained around a month’s worth of Silk Road transactions, it is likely that there will be a lot more busts to come out of this sweep in the next few weeks.
But that isn’t the whole story. One of the reasons that drug dealers on sites like Silk Road should be nervous is that until recently the Tor program has worked well in keeping dealers’ online identities concealed. However, even though the FBI hasn’t announced that it cracked Tor’s code, it is almost certain that they did.
But just like the Deep Web sites themselves will be replaced by other sites when they get shuttered, so to it is likely that another Tor-like program will be coded soon to take its place.