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Silk Road Trial: FBI Reveals What's On Ross Ulbricht’s Computer, In Open Court

By 5-HT2A, Jan 22, 2015 | Updated: Jan 22, 2015 | | |
  1. 5-HT2A

    Protestors came out when the Silk Road trial began, but left after the first day.

    NEW YORK—Shortly after he got on the stand, prosecutors handed FBI agent Tom Kiernan an item called Government's Exhibit 200. It was a Samsung 700z laptop wrapped in thick plastic wrap. Kiernan removed it, not without some difficulty, and inspected it.

    Yes, Kiernan told prosecutor Timothy Howard, this was the computer he and two other federal agents had taken from Ross Ulbricht in October 2013. It was a prize so important they literally snatched it out from underneath him, before they even arrested Ulbricht.

    On that day, a male and female agent started an argument in San Francisco's Glen Park public library, to get Ulbricht's attention. As soon as Ulbricht was distracted, another agent grabbed the open computer and gave it to Kiernan, who is an FBI computer specialist. Kiernan spent the next three hours doing "triage" on the machine. Without allowing it to go idle, and thus become encrypted, he took photographs, went through the browser history, and ultimately handed it off to another agent who imaged the hard drive.

    Today, with Kiernan on the stand offering confirmation, Howard walked the jury through the enormous amount of data pulled from Ulbricht's computer. Defense lawyers haven't had a chance yet to respond to this evidence—that will likely come tomorrow. The mountain they have to climb looks higher than ever, though. Last week, Ulbricht's lawyer outlined a defense in which Ulbricht walked away from the marketplace he created and was "lured back." But what will explain the dozens of folders of data on this laptop, with data from the upper echelons of Silk Road management—mixed with the most intimate details of Ulbricht's personal life?

    The jury saw spreadsheets of Silk Road finances, Ulbricht's personal tracking of his "net worth," and got just a small glimpse of the years of TorChat chat logs with Silk Road administrators that were on the machine. In those chats, "myself"—the default name for a user of TorChat—made key executive decisions about how to run Silk Road.

    There were many decisions that had to be made: promotions and demotions, contests and castigations. The jury saw Silk Road org charts, payroll documents, and daily logs tracking staff activities. They saw Ulbricht's old passport and driver's license, and the scanned IDs of Silk Road admins. Staffers had been promised those IDs would be kept encrypted, and they were—but the encryption was broken down by Kiernan, who found the keys on Ulbricht's machine.

    The computer also contained what appears to be Ulbricht's personal journal. It goes back to 2010, in which Ulbricht describes his early plans to create Silk Road and seed it by growing psychedelic mushrooms, and selling them for cheap. He describes his personal goals and his days spent working, surfing, or drinking with friends. He also describes lies told to friends, and the pain it brought.

    That diary was read into the public record today.

    "I went out with Jessica," said Howard, reading Ulbricht's diary into the public record in a rote monotone. "Our conversation was somewhat deep. I felt compelled to reveal myself to her... It was terrible. I told her I have secrets."

    i've been incredibly blessed

    In a folder labeled "TorChat," Ulbricht's computer holds years' worth of chat logs. The TorChat program that creates logs describing the primary user as "myself." Ulbricht says he wasn't the Dread Pirate Roberts, the identity who ran the Silk Road drug marketplace. But whoever was "myself" on his computer's chat logs did admit—boasted, even—that he ran the show.

    The first chat shown to the jury was from April of 2012:
    Ulbricht's 2011 journal entry described Digital Alchemy as the one he hired to be a "right hand man."

    In a January 2012 chat, "myself" told Digital Alchemy, a Silk Road staffer, that he'd be taking on an important new responsibility—handling vendors who don't follow the rules.

    "are you ready to become judge jury and executioner?" messaged DPR (writing as "myself," the term used in all these chat logs).

    "yep :)" wrote back a user named DigitalAlch.

    Later, DPR told Digital Alchemy he'd have to change his name, since there was too much Silk Road forum activity under his current name.

    "damn," responded DigitalAlch. "I really liked the DA moniker. but oh well. freedom is better than prison."

    "yep," wrote DPR. "i gotta protect my assets."

    There are nearly 1,100 pages of chat logs with "vj," apparently Variety Jones, who Ulbricht identifies as his mentor. Page 312 of that log reads in part:

    Later, Variety Jones changed his identity to cimon. "Variety Jones is dead," he wrote in a chat to DPR. "Poor fella. No more seed biz for him." On Oct. 24, 2012, "myself" asked cimon for suggestions about recruiting:
    The "myself" identity meted out punishment, too. He told cimon that between one and three vendors got "demoted" each week. The most common offenses were faking feedback, going outside of the Silk Road escrow system, or selling fake product.

    we are bringing order and civility

    Dread Pirate Roberts did the hiring and firing on Silk Road, and each hire had to send their scanned ID with current address. Ulbricht's computer had encrypted pictures of staffers on it. Kiernan broke the codes.

    In 2012, DPR was sent the Virginia driver's license of Andrew Michael Jones, a.k.a. inigo, the man he hired to manage message forums. He called himself "Patrick Henry" in one chat:

    Patrick Henry: i got that DL scanned for you

    Patrick Henry: let me know if you got it

    myself: handsome devil

    Patrick Henry: why thank you

    myself: don't touch anything you haven't been fully trained on, and take lots of notes, don't trust your memory

    DPR decided what could be bought and sold on the site.
    In early 2013, DPR chatted with "scout," a seller account that would later be taken over by a Homeland Security investigator. Scout was being recruited to join Silk Road as staff, but she was scared. Their chat read, in part:
    The only way the authorities could build such a case, DPR explained, would be by getting unencrypted information about Silk Road—a virtual impossibility, he assured Scout.

    It was a surreal moment. Prosecutor Timothy Howard and his colleagues had built the case that DPR had said couldn't be built, and were reading his dares back to a jury. Howard read the chats into the record in a staccato rhythm, as Kiernan confirmed each exhibit.

    The men had not broken the encryption. After seeing Ulbricht in public, and quickly scuttled their original plan, to arrest him at home the following day. They quickly adopted a more street-level plan. It was one their suspect—a young man with two college degrees, hunting for a spot in a San Francisco cafe, coming to rest in a quiet library—had not thought of. It was the strategy of another kind of person, of the poor and desperate, of thieves and thugs.

    He turned, and they reached out, and they took his things.

    by Joe Mullin

    January 21, 2015



  1. Basoodler
    It was good of him to keep that personal journal in there to fill in any gaps in the prosecutor's case..

    Holy cow, I get paranoid having drug related pdf's on my phone and this douche bag has an entire drug empire complete with employee records and personal insights saved on one laptop.... Then has the balls to walk around in public with it.....

    Good lord
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