The Silk Road – It’s not the technology at fault

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

October 4, 2013

Whatever your feelings about shady online marketplace the Silk Road, the idea that the technologies used to make it possible are in and of themselves shady, and reflect suspiciously on their users, is a fallacy of the highest order.

Even the FBI, in their criminal complaint released yesterday for the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ who is credited with being the brain behind the Silk Road, acknowledges that “Tor has known legitimate uses” and that “Bitcoins are not illegal in and of themselves and have known legitimate uses.”

Nevertheless, this high profile case has shone a rather negative light on anonymising technologies, which may lead those who use them to being automatically assumed to have something to hide.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is quick to observe, you cannot blame a tool just because it is misused by some individuals; ‘the public wouldn’t tolerate a campaign to malign the car because of its utility as a getaway vehicle for bank robbers; we must apply the same critical thinking to essential privacy-preserving technology’, or indeed trainers, which could be used to run away from a policeman!

Unfortunately, despite acknowledging that Tor and Bitcoins have legitimate uses, the complaint tars other perfectly legitimate technologies with a darker brush; “the only function served by such ‘tumblers’ is to assist with the laundering of criminal proceeds” reads the criminal complaint. Tumblers, also known as Bitcoin mixers, allow Bitcoins to be anonymised, making it very difficult (but not impossible for a determined investigator) to trace a Bitcoin transaction back to an individual. While such a tumbler service was a routine part of any Silk Road exchange, the idea that the only reason for wanting to pay for things anonymously is for criminal purposes is a very dangerous one, and would also include all those who pay for goods or services in good old cash!

Similarly, the accusation that Ulbricht, in trying to “hide the identities of those that run Silk Road reflect his awareness of the illegal nature of the Silk Road enterprise” blatantly ignores that fact that people have a right to be anonymous (and there are many lawful and legitimate reasons why they may wish to do so), and simply facilitating this right to free speech is not a crime.

The good news

For those who wish to remain anonymous on the internet, there is a good side to this story. It was not the anonymity technology behind the Silk Road that let it down, but the human element – most notably the carelessness and apparent hubris of Ross Ulbricht, plus a dash of bad luck.

It seems that Ulbrecht’s biggest mistake was to boast about his involvement in the Silk Road on his LinkedIn profile, dropping heavy hints such as that he was focusing “creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force”, and “I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression (sic) amongst mankind”. His fate was sealed with the chance interception on the Canadian border of nine fake ID’s, each with a photo of Ulbricht.


What this demonstrates is that that, despite the NSA’s tampering with international encryption standards, anonymity technologies remain secure, and provides an effective method of protecting individuals’ right to free speech. With the US federal government increasingly using language that demonizes these vitally important technologies, it is ever more important to heed the EEF’s words,

“It’s essential that the use of encryption, anonymization techniques, and other privacy practices is not deemed a suspicious activity. Rather, it must be recognized as an essential element for practicing freedom of speech in a digital environment.”

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