FBI seizes online drug marketplace Silk Road, outs owner in indictment

Ross Ulbricht, a San Francisco resident who goes by the online moniker "Dread Pirate Roberts," was indicted Wednesday for allegedly operating the drug Web site Silk Road after federal authorities shut it down.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read
Brian Krebs

After years of surveying the site and even purchasing a number of illegal substances itself, the FBI has finally succeeded in closing the Silk Road, the online drug marketplace by which anonymous users employing the secure Tor browser could purchase and sell drugs with Bitcoin. The site is now replaced with an FBI seizure notice.

Ross Ulbricht, 29, alleged owner and operator of the Silk Road under the infamous online handle "Dread Pirate Roberts," has been indicted in the Southern District of New York after being reportedly arrested in San Francisco. He faces charges of computer hacking conspiracy, narcotics trafficking conspiracy, and money laundering. Journalist Brian Krebs received a copy of the complaint against Ulbricht, which outlines the FBI's data on the site and the tactics it used to find its owner.

Ross Ulbricht, who went by the online handle "Dread Pirate Roberts," was charged by the FBI for operating the infamous Silk Road, an anonymous online drug marketplace. Ross Ulbricht/LinkedIn

Between February of 2011 and July of this year, Silk Road's 957,079 users generated $1.2 billion worth of transactions, earning Ulbricht nearly $80 million, the FBI says. Those numbers are pegged to current Bitcoin rates however, meaning the actual dollar amounts may have fluctuated with the crypto-currency's volatility this last year.

In its investigation, the FBI, led by agent Christopher Tarbell of the cybercrime division in New York, made more than 100 purchases on the drug marketplace. The agency had the drugs sent to New York for analysis, reports The Verge.

"Samples of these purchases have been laboratory-tested, and have typically shown high purity levels of the drug the item was advertised to be on Silk Road," Tarbell says. For its investigation, the FBI employed information received from Comcast and collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security and the US Border Patrol.

The FBI also cites Ulbricht's LinkedIn profile, which states that he received a Bachelors of Science in physics from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2006 and continued on to graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, holding a position as a graduate research assistant in the School of Materials Science and Engineering. However, of particular interest to law enforcement agency was Ulbricht's provided summary, which points out his motivation in operating the drug marketplace:

I love learning and using theoretical constructs to better understand the world around me. Naturally therefore, I studied physics in college and worked as a research scientist for five years. I published my findings in peer reviewed journals five times over that period, first on organic solar cells and then on EuO thin-film crystals. My goal during this period of my life was simply to expand the frontier of human knowledge.

Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression [sic] amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am 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.

Additionally, the FBI's criminal complaint contains information regarding Ulbricht's purchasing of an online hitman -- something that is indeed possibly using the anonymity of Tor and visiting the more criminal corners of the Dark Net.

When a user by the name of FriendlyChemist threatened to blackmail Ulbricht for half a million dollars by posting the identities of fellow Silk Road users, the owner of the site allegedly sought a price quote for having the blackmailer assassinated.

After haggling it down from $300,000 to $150,000, or 1,670 Bitcoins at the time, the hitman accepted and later reported that the job was done. However, the FBI could not find any evidence of the purported murder and so Ulbricht has not been charged with any crime related to the incident.