Like the Neapolitan neighborhood of Scampia where the mob openly runs the drugs trade, the Internet is rife with narcotics for sale. But there is one particular website that has far more to offer than what you could find in Scampia. It is a forum that is open 24/7, where thousands of drug dealers sell every kind of drug imaginable without any real risk of being caught and punished.
This junkie’s playground is called “Silk Road.” Mind you, it’s not easy to find. This eBay of dope appears not to exist – if you type the address into your browser it doesn’t turn up any results. But the site most definitely does exist. It’s hiding in a dark corner of the web – the hidden Internet – the Deep Web.
To enter this parallel virtual world you need to use Tor (short for The Onion Router), a free program that encrypts the user’s information to make navigation completely anonymous. It’s the same system that allows Iranian activists to exchange information and Chinese bloggers to avoid the censors. Once you download the program, a few minutes later the game is set – you can browse in this vast, free zone without any controls or rules — where nobody knows who does what.
Silk Road looks a bit like Amazon. There are photos of the products, prices, delivery times and consumer reviews. The logo is a Bedouin on a camel. A few months ago they stopped selling weapons, those are forbidden. But everything else is there, just a click away: counterfeit clothing, medicines, performance-enhancing drugs, false passports and pornographic materials.
There are 4,400 kinds of drugs available. The most popular at the moment are the synthetic stimulant drugs 4-MMC (mephedrone) and crystal meth (methamphetamine) – colorless, odorless and tasteless. Homemade, these synthetic drugs sometimes prove a fatal mix, regularly claiming the lives of young people on the outskirts of Moscow, the nightclubs of Ibiza and at raves on Brazilian beaches. This “high” is globalized – it breaks down borders and travels in small packages from one continent to another, spreading addiction.
Online payments and home delivery
On Silk Road, payments are made through Bitcoin, the electronic payment system that leaves no traces. The site automatically generates a virtual currency through a series of computers networked together. All you need to buy some of this currency is a credit card. You register your Bitcoin account with the site and then you are ready to purchase what you want, in total anonymity.
Many dealers, though, refuse to ship to new customers. The first attempt at buying something on Silk Road doesn’t always work, and there is always the risk of ending up on the black list of “suspicious buyers.” But after winning the trust of the dealers you can shop freely. After a few days the parcel of drugs arrives at its destination – through the mail.
“Because it is dematerialized, Silk Road is very difficult to tackle,” admits one investigator. The supply of drugs increases at an exponential rate. There are those who sell a few grams of marijuana, but there are also others who sell a kilogram of cocaine or 100 ecstasy pills at a time.
“There is a real risk that organized crime is turning to these new channels,” says Andrea Ceccobelli, a captain of the Italian Finance Police, specialized in technology-related crimes. “In other countries it’s already happening – in Russia, the mafia has been recruiting computer science graduates for years.”
In the past six months the number of dealers on Silk Road has more than doubled. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon University, the monthly profits from the first half of 2012 were around 1.5 million euros.
The site’s mysterious administrator must be very happy, as he earns a commission of 6% on every sale. He calls himself “Dread Pirate Roberts” (after the pirate in The Princess Bride film) and calls the dealers “heroes.” For months, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency has been hunting him. But for the moment, all they have to go on is just a nickname on a site that does not exist.
Translation By Gabriele Martini/La Stampa
By Adrian Chen
The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable
Making small talk with your pot dealer sucks. Buying cocaine can get you shot. What if you could buy and sell drugs online like books or light bulbs? Now you can: Welcome to Silk Road.
About three weeks ago, the U.S. Postal Service delivered an ordinary envelope to Mark’s door. Inside was a tiny plastic bag containing 10 tabs of LSD. “If you had opened it, unless you were looking for it, you wouldn’t have even noticed,” Mark told us in a phone interview.
Mark, a software developer, had ordered the 100 micrograms of acid through a listing on the online marketplace Silk Road. He found a seller with lots of good feedback who seemed to know what they were talking about, added the acid to his digital shopping cart and hit “check out.” He entered his address and paid the seller 50 Bitcoins—untraceable digital currency—worth around $150. Four days later the drugs, sent from Canada, arrived at his house.
“It kind of felt like I was in the future,” Mark said.
Silk Road, a digital black market that sits just below most internet users’ purview, does resemble something from a cyberpunk novel. Through a combination of anonymity technology and a sophisticated user-feedback system, Silk Road makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics—and seemingly as safe. It’s Amazon—if Amazon sold mind-altering chemicals.
Here is just a small selection of the 340 items available for purchase on Silk Road by anyone, right now: a gram of Afghani hash; 1/8th ounce of “sour 13” weed; 14 grams of ecstasy; .1 grams tar heroin. A listing for “Avatar” LSD includes a picture of blotter paper with big blue faces from the James Cameron movie on it. The sellers are located all over the world, a large portion from the U.S. and Canada.
But even Silk Road has limits: You won’t find any weapons-grade plutonium, for example. Its terms of service ban the sale of “anything who’s purpose is to harm or defraud, such as stolen credit cards, assassinations, and weapons of mass destruction.”
Getting to Silk Road is tricky. The URL seems made to be forgotten. But don’t point your browser there yet. It’s only accessible through the anonymizing network TOR, which requires a bit of technical skill to configure.
Once you’re there, it’s hard to believe that Silk Road isn’t simply a scam. Such brazenness is usually displayed only by those fake “online pharmacies” that dupe the dumb and flaccid. There’s no sly, Craigslist-style code names here. But while scammers do use the site, most of the listings are legit. Mark’s acid worked as advertised. “It was quite enjoyable, to be honest,” he said. We spoke to one Connecticut engineer who enjoyed sampling some “silver haze” pot purchased off Silk Road. “It was legit,” he said. “It was better than anything I’ve seen.”
Silk Road cuts down on scams with a reputation-based trading system familiar to anyone who’s used Amazon or eBay. The user Bloomingcolor appears to be an especially trusted vendor, specializing in psychedelics. One happy customer wrote on his profile: “Excellent quality. Packing, and communication. Arrived exactly as described.” They gave the transaction five points out of five.
“Our community is amazing,” Silk Road’s anonymous administrator, known on forums as “Silk Road,” told us in an email. “They are generally bright, honest and fair people, very understanding, and willing to cooperate with each other.”
Sellers feel comfortable openly trading hardcore drugs because the real identities of those involved in Silk Road transactions are utterly obscured. If the authorities wanted to ID Silk Road’s users with computer forensics, they’d have nowhere to look. TOR masks a user’s tracks on the site. The site urges sellers to “creatively disguise” their shipments and vacuum seal any drugs that could be detected through smell. As for transactions, Silk Road doesn’t accept credit cards, PayPal , or any other form of payment that can be traced or blocked. The only money good here is Bitcoins.
Bitcoins have been called a “crypto-currency,” the online equivalent of a brown paper bag of cash. Bitcoins are a peer-to-peer currency, not issued by banks or governments, but created and regulated by a network of other bitcoin holders’ computers. (The name “Bitcoin” is derived from the pioneering file-sharing technology Bittorrent.) They are purportedly untraceable and have been championed by cyberpunks, libertarians and anarchists who dream of a distributed digital economy outside the law, one where money flows across borders as free as bits.
To purchase something on Silk Road, you need first to buy some Bitcoins using a service like Mt. Gox Bitcoin Exchange. Then, create an account on Silk Road, deposit some bitcoins, and start buying drugs. One bitcoin is worth about $8.67, though the exchange rate fluctuates wildly every day. Right now you can buy an 1/8th of pot on Silk Road for 7.63 Bitcoins. That’s probably more than you would pay on the street, but most Silk Road users seem happy to pay a premium for convenience.
Since it launched this February, Silk Road has represented the most complete implementation of the Bitcoin vision. Many of its users come from Bitcoin’s utopian geek community and see Silk Road as more than just a place to buy drugs. Silk Road’s administrator cites the anarcho-libertarian philosophy of Agorism. “The state is the primary source of violence, oppression, theft and all forms of coercion,” Silk Road wrote to us. “Stop funding the state with your tax dollars and direct your productive energies into the black market.”
Mark, the LSD buyer, had similar views. “I’m a libertarian anarchist and I believe that anything that’s not violent should not be criminalized,” he said.
But not all Bitcoin enthusiasts embrace Silk Road. Some think the association with drugs will tarnish the young technology, or might draw the attention of federal authorities. “The real story with Silk Road is the quantity of people anxious to escape a centralized currency and trade,” a longtime bitcoin user named Maiya told us in a chat. “Some of us view Bitcoin as a real currency, not drug barter tokens.”
Silk Road and Bitcoins could herald a black market eCommerce revolution. But anonymity cuts both ways. How long until a DEA agent sets up a fake Silk Road account and starts sending SWAT teams instead of LSD to the addresses she gets? As Silk Road inevitably spills out of the bitcoin bubble, its drug-swapping utopians will meet a harsh reality no anonymizing network can blur.
Update: Jeff Garzik, a member of the Bitcoin core development team, says in an email that bitcoin is not as anonymous as the denizens of Silk Road would like to believe. He explains that because all Bitcoin transactions are recorded in a public log, though the identities of all the parties are anonymous, law enforcement could use sophisticated network analysis techniques to parse the transaction flow and track down individual Bitcoin users.
“Attempting major illicit transactions with bitcoin, given existing statistical analysis techniques deployed in the field by law enforcement, is pretty damned dumb,” he says.