A Silk Road to ruin: The Paper Machete – 10.05.13

I’ve said this before but one of the reasons I like performing at The Paper Machete is its hard-and-fast deadline and word count. The show starts at 3pm. If I’m going to make it to The Green Mill on time to read my piece, it needs to be written no later than 130pm. There’s no bargaining, no extension unless I want to piss off the good people who run it. And unless I want to disrupt the flow of the show, I can’t go on and on for thousands of words.

Deadlines and limits make you creative. They force you to go places or try things you might not otherwise to get to your goal.

If I had more time to work on this piece, I probably would have made the ending seem less depressing or inevitable. I’d have found a middle ground. But it was 130pm and I had hit my word count and I still ended up with a piece I was really happy with.

Whatever you think of the FBI, you have to admire its flair for marketing.

On October 1st, the FBI arrested and subsequently put a name to the man behind a website called Silk Road. Silk Road was a two year old website through which one could buy and sell drugs. An internationally-known marketplace where approximately 1.2 billion dollars were exchanged over its life. Before it was shut down, the site had a user base of 900 thousand and had earned its owner – a man known only as The Dread Pirate Roberts – approximately $80 million in commissions and a writeup in Forbes, the first two words of which referred to Roberts as “an entrepreneur.”

That’s a big deal. And naturally if you’re the FBI you’d want to make a big deal about something like this. Now, criminal investigations are complicated things. They’re a mix of tireless work over long hours and a lot of luck. You don’t always get to pick your shots.

So perhaps a signed complaint asking a judge for an arrest warrant just four days before a government shutdown – which would curtail the FBI’s ability to, say, post a press release on its website about the arrest is entirely coincidental.

It’s entirely possible that the timing of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s arrest had nothing to do with the conclusion two days prior of America’s most beloved series about a murderous drug kingpin who poisons children. (OK, to be fair, it was just the one.)

I’m just saying an organization that maintains a list of “America’s Most Wanted” and produces daily radio shows has a flair for the dramatic.

Purely as a matter of scale, the shutdown of Silk Road is interesting. But it’s also interesting because of the technology that powered it. Silk Road users maintained their anonymity through the use of two technologies: a piece of software called Tor which allows everyone from journalists to NGOs to, yes, criminals use the Internet without revealing their actual, physical locations. And all Silk Road transactions were conducted using something called Bitcoin, a purely digital currency that uses cryptography and a series of electronic ledgers to blah blah blah nerd talk sci-fi Star Wars magical unicorns of money.

As interesting as the technical aspects of this story are, you came here for a mix of current events and social commentary mixed with some showmanship and bitcoin is like the band that plays before the burlesque dancers so I’m just going to skip to the parts where the gloves start coming off.

So big drug marketplace shutdown and an interesting statement on somewhat obscure technical tools for conducting anonymous, often illicit activities. But who cares, right? Tor, bitcoin, pirates. It’s hard to take something seriously when it sounds like a game of Dungeons and Dragons. None of you are looking to create a billion dollar drug empire…OK, maybe that guy. Also, Chad The Bird. I mean, obviously.

At first blush, the real impact of the Silk Road story is that the era of the Internet as a haven for criminal anonymous activities is over, especially with the NSA listening in on every message just short of “Do you like me, Circle Yes or No.”

No, the real lesson here is “The mythical permanent record we were all warned about in grade school has finally become real and it’s the Internet.”

You see, the government figured out the Dread Pirate Roberts is actually a guy named Ross Ulbricht. According to Ars Technica’s report on the government’s criminal complaint, the first mention of Silk Road was made by a user on a website called Shroomery.org. This same user posted a comment in a Bitcoin forum back in 2011 asking for some help with the nascent digital currency. This user’s account had an email address attached to it: “rossulbricht at gmail dot com.” This same Gmail address was attached to a Google Plus account which listed some of his favorite videos, some of which were from a place called the Mises Institute, which is named after an economist whose theories the Dread Pirate Roberts frequently cited as the basis for the larger philosophical ideas behind Silk Road. Similar references to these economic theories were also found on a LinkedIn account registered to Ulbricht.

For someone who masterminded a small drug empire using an untraceable digital currency, Ulbricht didn’t exactly cover his tracks very well. You could rightly argue that if you’re going to start selling drugs on the Internet, you shouldn’t do it with the same email address your aunt sends all her “THE TRUTH ABOUT OBAMA’S MUSLIMNESS” emails to.

It’s a little hard to blame Ulbricht for this behavior. After all, he’s no different than anyone else who leaves bits of his or her interests and views in various corners of the Internet. We used to be able to think of our lives as different circles of friends and family but for most people, the dream of keeping our personal lives and our professional lives separate died in a Facebook argument about the President’s birth certificate between a significant other and an aunt we never see. You can leave a job, but your former co-workers will continue to follow you. And it’s a lot harder to get over that bad breakup when someone’s Instagram account is just clicks away.

And thanks to the current nature of the Internet’s cloud architecture it’s all tied into a central username or email address for sheer convenience if nothing else. Argue, if you like, that Ulbricht was an idiot and if you and Chad The Bird were going to start a criminal enterprise, you would at least go to the trouble of creating a second email address. But who gets on the Internet for the first time thinking they’re going to create a criminal enterprise? Or cheat on their girlfriend? Or need to lie to their boss about calling in sick that day?

The problem isn’t that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about your privacy, it’s that we think we can hide in the sheer volume of conversation happening online right now. The Internet’s ubiquity has made everything we do on it seem ephemeral. A phrase like “the Internet of things” and gear like FitBit or Google Glass means we have – in a relatively short amount of time – gone from thinking of it as worldwide network of blogs and websites – to something we can wear on our faces or wrists or clip to our belts. Because it’s everywhere there’s the sense that no one will see us if we jot down a few thoughts in a notebook we literally tuck into our pocket, only showing them to a few people we know. Conversations on Facebook, Twitter or in comments sections have now become so ubiquitous they’ve come to feel like little more than a conversation we’re having with a friend on the bus or the train. We lean over and chat conspiratorially with a friend, confident that the stranger seated in front of us can’t hear and so what if they can anyway? Our stop is up next and we’ll be gone.

So while the details of the time you sat at a bar in college and rambled on about some obscure economic theory is…long forgotten by the time your 401K breaks $500, there’s usually a trail when you do the same thing online. And someone with the time and motivation to look for it can find it.

I’m not sure what the end game looks like here. Either we’re all going to end up truer, more honest versions of ourselves or everyone is going to end up hiding their online selves behind Tor and Bitcoin and the Internet will become the least social version of social media ever.

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