Aftermath of the Silk Road

Silk Road
May 30, 2016 at 5:37 am

Aftermath of the Silk Road

Two years after federal agents apprehended Ross Ulbricht, the dark web is teeming with dozens of new markets and hundreds of thousands of new dealers serving a fast growing consumer base. Ulbricht was apprehended at a public library in San Francisco. His apprehension was seen to shutter the pioneering of online marketing Silk Road. Ross in now serving a life imprisonment for running the digital drug bazaar, but the market’s vision of unregulated commerce still thrives belly fat.

According to the figures from US online safety group, Digital Citizens Alliance, at the time the Silk Road was busted in October 2013, it had 13 000 drugs listings, followed by Black Market Reloaded at 3 567 listings the Sheep Marketplace with close to 1 500 listings.

A research by the same group showed that the closure of the Silk Road website brought to a halt 13 648 different drug deals. However, as per recent Reddit.com post1, new darknet markets carry a total of 33 985 different drug deals. 

Without much effort, almost anyone with internet access can order illegal drugs from customer-reviewed vendors on the so called “deep Web”. Anyone can download the Tor anonymous browser; buy the digital currency bitcon and further cocaine, pot or pills could be brought to your doorstep.

“Purchasing new and ‘old’ drugs via darknets – underground, online networks permitting anonymous communication – represents new challenge for law enforcement”, said the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in a statement on May 28, 2014. 

Though some of these darknets are scams, their enormous growth cannot go unnoticed. Like the other centralized markets, there are now several boutique single-vendor sites, specialty shops selling only high-quality standards cannabis, or LSD, or cocaine to invited guests only. Currently, there is a darknet search engine called Grams and a central repository carrying reviews for all darknet drug dealers, called the Hub.

“It is an idea, like social networking, that you wouldn’t think very much of until it happens. Then you can’t image people giving it up”, says Johns Hopkins University computer science professor, Mathew Green. “The easiest way to think about Silk Road is to view it as a proof of concept for later darknet markets”.

Buying drugs online is no longer a niche activity

A few years ago, buying drugs online using bitcons was a gig known about and practiced only by pros and high cadre technical elite. It is becoming a common thing today, admits Adam Winstock of the Global Drugs Survey. Out of the 80 000 people he interviewed in 2014, 22% had bought drugs online of which 44% of them had done so for the first time during 2013.

“The growth of purchasing psychoactive drugs online in recent years reflects the growth of ecommerce more generally”, said Winstock, whose survey is the world’s largest inquiry into drug-user habits. “Convenience, product choice, price and user rating make buying drugs online attractive to some users”.

Still reliant on postal services

These darknet sites and their customers still rely on physical delivery services. For example, in UK, the Royal Mail delivers 42m pieces of domestic and 2m international in the UK each day of which many contain illegal drugs from darknet markets. “Where Royal Mail has any suspicion that illegal items are being through our system, we work closely with the police and other authorities to assist their investigations and to prevent such activities from happening”, it told the Guardian in a statement.

Gwern Branwen, who has documented the Silk Road since its inception, told the Guardian the darknet market is growing far beyond the original constituency of tech-savvy users.

A study co-authored by Carnegie Mellon researcher Kyle Soska and his adviser professor Nicholas Christin released early 2015, analyzed the size of darknet markets, finding they do brisk business with relatively stable sales amounting to $300 000 to $500 000 per day.

‘It felt safer than buying from some blonde in a club’

Agora is a darknet site hosted on the Tor which anonymises network and is named after the anti-state, anti-taxation philosophy of Agorism propounded by the initial Silk Road operators. Apart from drugs, Agora hosts other illegal products and services for sale like money laundering services, phishing and spam tools, forged documents, anonymous mail drops, hacking techniques and weapons. The US-based web crime group the Digital citizens Alliance published a detailed report2 called Busted, But Not Broken: The State of Silk Road and the darknet market places in May 2014, which stated that “there is significantly more completion today than when the original Silk Road was seized”

Government: Anonymous tools are not totally untraceable

The spokesman of home office, which is responsible for policing the web and illegal market places, told the guardian the issue was being addressed firmly. “Tools which aim to anonymise the identity of internet users present challenges to investigations, but those challenges are not insurmountable and numerous criminals who have thought themselves untraceable have found that not to be the case”, he said.

However, the technological future of the darknet sites appears assured – and increasingly complex. The new bitcon software, Dark Wallet, facilitates payments. Its inventors Amir Taaki and Cody Wilson have stated explicitly that they believe the freedom to buy illegal drugs is a positive consequence of encryption, bitcoin and Tor.

The current fast-growing market seems to be Evolution as it uses inbuilt multiple person escrow facilities of bitcon known as “multi-sig transaction”, whereby funds are only released from a buyer to a seller once a third party has signed off the deal.