When Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole last Friday, the judge in his case made clear that her severe punishment wasn’t only about Ulbricht’s personal actions in creating the Silk Road’s billion-dollar drug market. As Judge Katherine Forrest told the packed courtroom, she was also sending a message to any would-be online drug kingpins who might follow in his footsteps. “For those considering stepping into your shoes,” she said, “they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences.”
But despite Ulbricht’s ultimate punishment, the lesson for anyone closely watching the Dark Web drug trade has hardly been one of inevitable consequences. As independent researcher Gwern Branwen has documented in an ongoing survey of more than 70 Dark Web drug markets created after Ulbricht founded the Silk Road, only five of those sites’ administrators have been arrested. For many of the others, the security model Ulbricht pioneered—using Tor and bitcoin to protect administrators, buyers and sellers—has successfully kept law enforcement fumbling in the shadows.
In fact, the difficulty of laying hands on Dark Web drug market creators was one reason Ulbricht’s prosecutors asked for a lengthy sentence. If law enforcement can’t apprehend all Ulbricht imitators, went prosecutors’ argument, it had better compensate with harsher punishment for those it does catch. “Although the Government has achieved some successes in combating these successor dark markets, they continue to pose investigative challenges for law enforcement,” read the prosecution’s letter. “To the extent that would-be imitators may view the risk of being caught to be low, many are still likely to be deterred if the stakes are sufficiently high.”
When Ross Ulbricht begins his life sentence at a federal prison in the coming weeks, in other words, he won’t just be serving his own time. He’ll also be serving the time of all the Dark Web drug lords who escaped his fate.
Here are five of those online narco-kingpins who—for now—remain at large.
Despite Ulbricht’s arrest and the rounding up of four of his Silk Road lieutenants, the second most important figure in that black market operation still hasn’t been captured or even publicly identified. Variety Jones served as Ulbricht’s security consultant, advisor, and even mentor, according to Ulbricht’s journal and chat logs the prosecutors admitted into evidence at trial. The anonymous figure, who sold cannabis seeds on the site, also secretly advised Ulbricht on everything from tracking sales statistics to creating a personal cover story. It was Jones who named him the Dread Pirate Roberts to give the impression of a rotating command rather than a single individual. And Jones also nudged the Dread Pirate Roberts toward violence, suggesting in a private chat that they murder an employee believed to have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoin from the site.
During the Silk Road’s time online, its most aggressive competition came from a site called Atlantis, a Dark Web market with a similar business model, but with the addition of an advertising budget. Atlantis went so far as to post a public YouTube video ad and to host an “ask-me-anything” session on Reddit with the site’s unnamed founder and its CEO. In an encrypted interview, those leaders would later describe their site to me as the “Facebook to [Silk Road’s] Myspace.”
Just before the FBI bust of the Silk Road in the summer of 2013, however, Atlantis’ founders shuttered their site and absconded with all their users’ bitcoins. Ross Ulbricht would write in his journal that the Atlantis admins had privately warned him of a purported security flaw in Tor that inspired them to abandon ship. The Atlantis creators never resurfaced—neither online nor in the hands of law enforcement.
Dread Pirate Roberts 2
Just one month after the original Silk Road was seized, Silk Road 2 came online. At its helm, of course, was a new Dread Pirate Roberts; Ulbricht’s cover story of a rotating command had become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The second DPR was at least as talkative as the first, posting political statements to the Silk Road 2 forums and even creating a twitter account. But after three Silk Road 2 administrators were arrested—all of whom had worked for the original Dread Pirate Roberts on Silk Road 1.0—the new Dread Pirate Roberts gave up control of the site to a new administrator named Defcon. Defcon would be identified as 26-year-old Blake Benthal and arrested as part of Operation Onymous, a mass purge of Dark Web sites by the FBI and Europol late last year that took down dozens of Tor hidden services. But the second Dread Pirate Roberts seemed to escape that international dragnet.
For a year starting in March of 2014, Evolution was the new and improved mecca of the Dark Web’s underground economy. At its peak, Evolution had more than twice as many product listings as the Silk Road ever offered, including types of contraband Ulbricht never allowed on the Silk Road such as stolen financial information. And it somehow ran faster and stayed online far more reliably than its competitors. That criminal professionalism was in part the work of an experienced cybercriminal called Verto, Evolution’s pseudonymous founder and the founder of the earlier Dark Web black market known as Tor Carder Forum, devoted to identity theft.
Then in March of this year, Verto and Evolution co-founder Kimble abruptly shut down the site, taking with them millions of dollars of their users’ bitcoins. A Department of Homeland Security investigation continues to search for the two Evolution administrators, revealed a subpoena sent to the “darknetmarkets” forum of Reddit seeking to identify Evolution staffers. But no arrests have been announced.
For any Dark Web drug lord trying to avoid being the next Ross Ulbricht, step one is not to be in the United States. That’s a lesson from Darkside, the creator of RAMP, the Russian Anonymous Marketplace. RAMP has survived three years online—longer than any other Dark Web drug market—by focusing exclusively on Russian clientele. “We never mess with the CIA, we work only for Russians and this keeps us safe,” Darkside told WIRED in December of last year. “You can’t rape the whole world and remain safe.”
Darkside, who uses an illustration of Edward Norton as his online avatar, said at the time of that interview that RAMP was continuing to earn him close to $250,000 a year in revenue, far less than the Silk Road but enough for Darkside to consider himself a “rich guy” in his local currency. And he offered another tip to avoid the kind of law enforcement crackdown that targeted the Dread Pirate Roberts: don’t talk politics. In fact, all political discussion is banned on RAMP. “Politics always attract extra attention,” Darkside wrote. “We do not want that.”
by Andy Greenberg
June 2, 2015