Technology makes it hard to keep the Internet black market down for long

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Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 12:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO — So this is where they collared the man they call the Dread Pirate Roberts.

It’s up a flight of stone steps, past the circulation desk and the Romance stacks, over in Science Fiction, far corner.

On a recent Tuesday, federal officers entered the public library in the Glen Park section of this city and arrested a young man who they say ran a vast Internet black market — an eBay of illegal drugs.

Their mark, Ross William Ulbricht, says he is not the FBI’s Dread Pirate Roberts, the nom de guerre of the mastermind behind the marketplace, Silk Road. And the facts, his lawyer says, will prove that.

However this story plays out, Silk Road already stands as a tabloid monument to old-fashioned vice and new-fashioned technology. Until the website was shut down last month, it was the place to score, say, a brick of cocaine with a few anonymous strokes on a keyboard. According to the authorities, it greased $1.2 billion in drug deals and other crimes, including murder for hire.

That this story intruded here, at a public library in a nice little neighborhood, says a lot about the dark corners of the Internet. The Dark Web, as it is known, is everywhere and nowhere, and it’s growing fast.

No sooner was the old Silk Road shut down than a new, supposedly improved Silk Road popped up. Other online bazaars for illegal guns and drugs are thriving.

And the Dread Pirate Roberts — the old one, a new one, who knows? — is back. (The pseudonym is a reference to a character in the film “The Princess Bride” who turns out to be not one man but many men passing down the title.)

“It took the FBI 2½ years to do what they did,” the Dread Pirate Roberts wrote last week on the new Silk Road site. “But four weeks of temporary silence is all they got.”

So catch us if you can, the Dread Pirate is saying. The new Silk Road has overhauled its security and “marks the dawn of a brand new era for hidden services,” he wrote.

The question is, can anyone really stamp out the Dread Pirates? Like the rest of the Internet, the Dark Web is being shaped and reshaped by technological innovation.

First, there was Tor, a suite of software and network computers that enables online anonymity. Edward Snowden used Tor to leak government secrets, and it has been important for dissidents in places like Iran and Egypt. Of course, drug dealers and gunrunners prefer anonymity, too.

Then there is bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that has been skyrocketing in value lately. Bitcoin is basically virtual cash — anonymous, untraceable currency. The kind of thing that comes in handy when buying contraband.

It’s hardly news that there are bad actors on the Internet. But the growth of the Dark Web is starting to attract attention in Washington. Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, warned recently that the authorities seemed to be playing Whac-a-Mole with websites like Silk Road. This, the senator said, “underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly.”

The FBI declined to discuss the Silk Road case. But some security experts wonder how authorities can effectively police the Walter Whites of the Web. Matthew Green, a research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, says buying illegal drugs online is now easier than buying them on a street corner. Green says that Tor is incredibly difficult to crack, but that what is really driving all this is digital cash like bitcoin.

“And cash, in small sums, is completely untraceable,” he said.

Parmy Olson, the author of “We Are Anonymous,” said that it was difficult to spot the criminals and troublemakers of the Web in the real world. The bad guys on the Internet do not look like the bad guys we know, she said.

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