Silk Road, the online black market that generated millions of dollars in drug sale commissions, was shut down by various federal agencies on Oct. 2.
Notorious for the ease at which users could buy illegal drugs, the website had been in operation since January 2011. Silk Road was able to remain hidden from authorities by being hosted on the Deep Web, a hidden group of websites not detected by standard search engines like Google or Bing.
“Silk Road was completely inaccessible unless you were funneling your Internet connection through Tor, meaning everyone connected to Silk Road was theoretically anonymous,” said a former Silk Road user who wished to remain anonymous.
Tor is an acronym for “The Onion Router,” a web browser that uses a technology known as onion routing. The technique was patented by the U.S. Navy in 1998 and involves sending packets of data through layers of encryption before reaching its destination.
The anonymity was for both the buyer and seller’s protection; if one wanted to harm the other, it would be nearly impossible for them to determine the other’s identity.
“You don’t have to worry about meeting someone you don’t know or risk getting hurt, robbed or caught up in drug politics,” the Silk Road user said. “You don’t have to worry about getting a dangerous substance, as far as dangerous and drugs go, because sellers (on Silk Road) have a reputation that is publicly viewable.”
Some independent groups would even go so far as to buy products from Silk Road and lab test them to ensure quality, safety and purity of the drugs. This quality control stands in stark contrast to some street-vendor drugs, which are cut with substances to dilute the drug and stretch profits, the Silk Road user said. For example, street dealers might cut cocaine with anything from flour to rat poison, making the drug more harmful for the user.
Users could buy almost anything from Silk Road — not just drugs — including counterfeit documents and hackers-for-hire. However, making a purchase using credit or debit payments leaves behind information that can be easily traced back to the buyers or sellers. To stay hidden, transactions on Silk Road used Bitcoins, or BTC, a high-value currency as anonymous as cash.
“Bitcoin is an electronic, decentralized, cryptographic currency,” said Daniel Leeper, Arts & Technology sophomore and Bitcoin enthusiast. “Which is more or less a fancy way of saying an encrypted form of money that has no central authority.”
When the federal government seized the Silk Road servers, they also seized Bitcoins associated with Silk Road leader Dread Pirate Roberts: 27,000 BTC valued at nearly $3.6 million. Immediately following the seizure, a Bitcoin address had just over 27,000 BTC transferred to it. This address is believed to be the address used by the federal government to store the seized assets.
Many Silk Road supporters have made small donations to the address, often less than a thousandth of a Bitcoin, and used the opportunity to post messages decrying the actions of the federal government.
“They’ll say we’re disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we are disturbing the war,” one supporter posted, quoting Howard Zinn, the famed American social activist.
While Silk Road has been shut down, other online black markets persist. Black Market Reloaded and Sheep Marketplace are some of the deep web sites that have been filling the gap left in Silk Road’s absence, and other users turn back to the streets for their drugs.