On 2 October 2013, the Silk Road, a sprawling, illegal, Dark Web drug bazaar, was taken down by the FBI in its latest campaign in the pyrrhic forty-year war on drugs. The bureau heralded the capture of the site’s alleged owner, twenty-eight-year-old Texan student Ross Ulbricht, alias Dread Pirate Roberts, and listed the various crimes of which he stands accused: conspiracy to traffic drugs, money laundering and soliciting gangland hits.
The Dark Web is a shadow internet, an unindexed, unseen and lawless corner of cyberspace. Accessed and created by anonymising software, it hosts and enables the websites, markets and communications of the digital age’s troublemakers: from political dissidents in oppressive regimes who want to publish and communicate privately – as in the Arab Spring – to drug dealers, protesters, paedophiles, privacy campaigners, terrorists, journalists, hackers, environmentalists, credit card fraudsters, legitimate businessmen and women, military and political operatives in unfriendly regions, and contract killers. But as well as all that, it is often simply used by increasing numbers of those who think the government has no business monitoring their digital lives: users of the software have doubled in number in recent years.
Since 2011, the most notorious dark web citizens have been drug dealers and their customers. It’s a perfect fit: the networks’ anonymity allows drug users to circumvent the (current) illegality of many millions of people’s personal and private health choices. It helps drug dealers make an awful lot of money. Chief among those who have profited, allege US prosecutors, was Ross Ulbricht, who is said to have run the Silk Road. He didn’t physically sell the drugs, though he is said to have created and hosted the digital marketplace.
After Ulbricht’s capture, as he logged on to a faraway server from a public Wi-Fi hotspot in a San Francisco library, the Silk Road’s 1 million worldwide users sat back and counted their losses (monies held in the site’s accounts were captured by the FBI when it grabbed the server). Then they logged on to the Silk Road’s separate discussion forum to see what was happening. However, users suspected the forum – like the market – was being watched or even controlled by the police, and so a trusted member set up a new, anonymous forum. It takes just an hour or two.
An administrator at the old forum posted a thread with an address pointing them to a new site, which they pasted into their Tor browser windows. The Tor software that allows them to open addresses such as Silk Road, hosted on the Dark Web, can be found here. Go and take a look. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a parallel web universe. It’s not illegal to do so. And if the NSA and GCHQ are watching – and we can safely assume that they are – well, you’re pretty much anonymous if you use the software correctly. Self-censorship may be an instinctive response to the revelations of these agencies’ dragnet, full-spectrum surveillance, but remember: you’re not yet breaking any laws by reading.
Less than a week after Ross Ulbricht was placed in an internet-free, windowless room with a lock on the door for twenty-two hours a day, Houdini-like, the Dread Pirate Roberts posted the following message at the Silk Road’s new discussion forum: ‘I look forward to seeing you all over on the new site. Let LE [law enforcers] waste their time and resources whilst we make a statement to the world that we will not allow jackbooted government thugs trample our freedom.’
The Dread Pirate Roberts was originally a swashbuckling pirate character in the 1973 fantasy novel The Princess Bride by American screenwriter William Goldman. In it, he is a persona assumed by many different characters, each of whom hands the mantle, name, responsibilities and ship to his chosen successor. And so as Ulbricht languishes in his cell awaiting trial, he may take some cold comfort that though he has been jailed, his ideas – and the technologies that allowed the fullest expression of them – remain free. The ship he sailed so flagrantly into enemy waters was not sunk – for it cannot be sunk.
The server that hosted the Silk Road market was infiltrated and copied in July, and then closed down again by the FBI in September, but server space is trivially cheap, and the rewards are high for those prepared to take the risk. And those rewards just got higher: the FBI’s raid has had an unintended consequence. It has just inadvertently spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a proof-of-concept web marketing exercise that has alerted the entire world to this rather startling fact: you can buy any drugs you want in nearly any quantity very easily on the Internet, and they will likely be posted conveniently to your home. Until the bust, the site was still relatively unknown outside fairly narrow confines. Now, it’s headline news.
The errors Ulbricht made that led to his capture, were, it is claimed, the result of sloppy OpSec – operational security – he didn’t cover his digital traces effectively enough, using aliases that tied back to him across multiple sites, sloppy coding, and perhaps most fateful of all, allegedly ordering a series of fake IDs to his own house. (This could be false, or constructed evidence, since it is possible that the NSA, America’s spy agency, has developed new surveillance skills that allowed them to hack the Dark Web, but is unwilling to reveal its hand just yet – or ever.)
It is rumoured that by 5 November the Silk Road will be back online. Once the new site is up, drug users all over the world will once again load their on-site wallets with Bitcoin, the anonymous currency used on the Dark Web, and exchange for an array of illegal drugs with a network of untraceable dealers worldwide. Following each advertisement for the drugs they will purchase are eBay-like descriptions detailing the quality, weight, and stealth-packing techniques used by the dealers.
Nothing will have changed.
Of course, for users of conventional online drug markets, the dangers of drug use remain the same: overdose, addiction, or even just the danger of living a blinkered life of pointless, relentless hedonism. But compared to scoring on the street, objectively and statistically, this is a much safer system with less risk of prosecution, violence or poisoning. And anyone who has lived in an area where street prostitution, gangs and drug-dealing coexist in a grim symbiosis will know the effect that drugs have on communities.
At the online discussion forum attached to the Silk Road’s drug market, dozens of dealers began posting on a thread, stating they were ready to work again on any new version of Silk Road. Users likewise were ready for action, and agreed that the new site should simply be called Silk Road, to show that the capture of Ulbricht had changed precisely nothing. Salty paul, bungee84, gamma g0blin, cyan_spore, shggy shman, UK Domestic and Aussie Guy all checked in to the discussion forum that they were ready to trade as soon as the market reopened. And why wouldn’t they? Out of the thousands of dealers that operated on the Silk Road, less than ten have been arrested worldwide. More street dealers are arrested each night in any major city.
But it wasn’t just the new iteration of Silk Road that was getting ready for business. Smaller, more obscure markets either came online, or old ones found themselves flooded with new customers and traders. For every head the authorities cut off, two more have popped up, hydra-like.
Black Market Reloaded’s administrator, known as Backopy, was struggling to keep his dark web anonymous drug market online as many of the Silk Road’s 1 million customers flocked to this new safe haven. He had been in competition with the Silk Road for over a year, and so was known not to be either police or thief. But code from his site was leaked online on 17 October, and he has taken the site offline temporarily. A similar site, ‘Atlantis’, had launched earlier this year, but that shut down mysteriously a few weeks ahead of the Silk Road bust.
Some users moved their Bitcoins unthinkingly over to the Sheep Market, a market that had existed for a while, but which is not yet fully trusted. Meanwhile wiser users quickly began to solve the technical problems and vulnerabilities that a centralized marketplace had demonstrated, coding through the night to make a new, distributed system. Others yet set up the Black Flag project, a Silk Road rival ship whose mast and rigging creaked under the less technically adept owners. Some dealers quickly set up their own private forums, leveraging their brand loyalty and proving their identities by using their public PGP encryption keys – a foolproof way of identifying yourself on the anonymous internet. (PGP is a system of digital ‘double-locking’ that verifies the identity of the senders and recipients of a scrambled message.)
There are now eight new anonymous dark web drug markets. Since the technology isn’t that much different to or more arduous than setting up a blog, there will soon be dozens more sites, and dozens more ways to sell drugs across the net and the world. The impossibility of current efforts to legislate away people’s immutable desire for altered states of mind is brought into sharp focus by these responses to the Silk Road takedown.
One of the starkest realisations about the futility of the war on drugs first came to me ten years ago on a small island in the Kuna Yala, an autonomous region of Panama, consisting of hundreds of tiny islands. This vast Caribbean archipelago is a paradisiacal archetype: coconut palms, impossibly blue, fathomless water, white sand, blue skies. I was working for the Reuters news agency on a series of features and news stories.
I arrived on the island on a dugout piroga, or canoe, after hours hugging the wild coast, sunburnt and windblown. Our arrival caused a huge commotion. I was here to speak to an albino shaman and had been planning the trip for weeks. Albinos are revered in this isolated island culture and are known as ‘The Children of the Moon’ – they are said to be imbued with mystic powers. I was offered a king crab lunch by a local woman in intricate dresses, embroidered with vivid reverse appliqué in the local mola style. Her son dived down to catch my lunch, and then she stewed it in a pot of home-made butter and garlic sauce over a fire made of coconut wood. The chunks of it were tender as the finest fillet steak, my table shaded by palms.
In a haze of intense tropical satisfaction I flip-flopped down a dirt track between the adobe huts. I heard singing women calming fractious babies, and then I met the island’s chief albino shaman, Mandiuliguina Flores. We sipped chicha in the midday sun on upturned Coca-Cola crates as he told me of his miraculous prowess: he could, he claimed, leap from a towering palm tree into a shallow stream and walk away unscathed. But that wasn’t all.
‘I can heal any snakebite. I attend to women in childbirth. I can remove stuck fish bones from your throat with this pill, and I can cure headaches by simply touching your head,’ he said. ‘And I can tell your future.’
As we spoke, a young Kuna man of no more than seventeen walked past, carrying an open bag of what I initially thought was sherbet, but was, I soon realized, cocaine. It contained, at a rough guess, around 4 ounces, over a hundred grammes. He was pinching at it, rubbing it on his gums, sniffing it off a key, a vampire snarl on his lips as he spotted the unwelcome gringo. He was with several friends, all of whom had bags of the stuff. Over half a tonne of the drug had washed ashore that week, jettisoned from Colombian smugglers on go-fast boats as they dumped the evidence when caught by coastguards, I later discovered. With no coke aboard, the traffickers could only be charged with immigration offences.
The islanders knew its value, and sold it back to Colombian traders that sold tanks of cooking gas on an east-west route from the Panama Canal’s entrance at seamy Colon down to the swaying Caribbean coastal town of Cartagena. But plenty stayed ashore and was wrecking the traditional lives of this indigenous community, the shaman told me.
The young men were bored of life in this idyllic place. Cocaine was much more fun than paradise. In a perfect world no one would need to take drugs, but even here on this paradise island, people were so bored they were developing cocaine addictions, abandoning their traditional lives and values, or in some cases, diving whilst wasted to catch lobsters and floating dead to the surface.
Drugs never improve communities and that is all the more reason to make sure their sale and consumption is properly regulated. Free access to drugs – whether through Silk Road-like systems or the bounty of a Colombian go-fast boat is not the solution. But neither is outright prohibition. The motivations for taking drugs are as varied as the people who take them and until lawmakers can understand that, we will never reach a point of a rational and functional drug policy: one that prevents the greatest number of deaths.
Home Secretary Theresa May said a week ago when Nick Bonnie, a 30-year-old man from Stroud, Gloucestershire, died at Manchester’s Warehouse Project, that ‘our job is make sure people come off drugs.’ That is a wholly inadequate and uninformed response. Users of drugs such as Ecstasy are not addicted, and do not need help to ‘come off’ them. They need instead a guarantee that the pill they take is pure and relatively safer than one contaminated with drugs such as PMA, which has killed dozens of clubbers this year in the UK.
Holland, Austria and Switzerland all have in place pill-testing facilities in nightclubs that help people avoid the most toxic of drugs – while still asserting that even pure MDMA itself can be toxic for some people. Next, users need advice on harm reduction: start with just half a pill, keep hydrated, avoid alcohol and other drugs, and stay cool.
Moreover, proper, state-sponsored control of the drug market would sever the main revenue artery of every gangster in the country by seizing the production, control and distribution of these trivially cheap compounds and plant extracts and would create a truly regulated, far safer market.
Ulbricht’s alleged achievement is as instructive economically as it is epochal: this one man was, the FBI says, able to build a multi-million dollar drug market from his laptop, and evade capture for over two years. He is said to have amassed over \$80 million in profits with no more physical effort than it takes to click a mouse. His alleged turnover, depending on the wildly varying price of Bitcoins – the cryptographic, anonymous currency used at his store – was \$1.2 billion. Bitcoins have slumped and soared from \$6 to nearly \$300 in the space of eighteen months.
This dryly overestimates the site’s turnover by something like 400% – mirroring in cyberspace what the police do whenever they announce details of a bust in reality. Many observers quickly do the maths while reading the news of any multi-million-pound cannabis farm bust and smile as the police calculate the value of the entire plant’s weight: leaf, stem, branch and root, rather than the far lighter flowers, which are the only bits that are sold and smoked. A good lawyer will likely average Ulbricht’s turnover down to a fraction of this sum (still a hefty few million).
And this is the reason drugs will win any and all wars launched against them, on and offline, in the long, short and medium term. It is not only because you have a market in which committed customers will risk jail or even death for their consumer choices. It’s because you can’t kill, beat, bomb, outmanoeuvre, conquer, annex, or otherwise force plants and chemicals to surrender. They can’t be made to unexist, since many of them grow wild across the entire face of the planet. But most of all, the drugs and the dealers will win the war, no matter the collateral damage, because under the current legal paradigm, they are valued beyond their worth.