Among the Internet’s giant e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay exists a relatively unknown and secretive marketplace called Silkroad, which operates in a hidden corner of the web. In many ways, Silkroad resembles any ordinary website, but instead of an e-outlet for electronics and shoes, it functions as an online black market, specializing in all things illegal: drugs, sex services and pornography. This year alone, there were over $1.2 million per month in secret sales on the site. But exactly how does a website like Silkroad evade criminality while facilitating the mass exchange of illicit materials?
In a gross oversimplification, the Silkroad survives by operating in the “cyber-shadows,” where its users’ identities and commerce remain untraceable and anonymous. First, in order to visit the Silkroad (which I strongly recommend not doing), one must access something called the Darknet or Invisible Web. The Darknet relies on something called Tor, a system developed to ensure online anonymity by effectively hiding one’s IP address.
Once at the Silkroad website, one may browse various types of contraband products, ranging from LSD to firearms. On Silkroad, there are merchants who sell the contraband and users who can browse through a variety of user-rated sellers, almost in the same way peer-to-peer sales operate on eBay. Again, to preserve anonymity since these transactions are highly illegal, merchants are paid with a decentralized, electric currency called Bitcoin. Unlike a traditional monetary transaction, the exchange of Bitcoins is untraceable.
In effect, the Silkroad is an immaterial black market, allowing people to buy Schedule I drugs at the click of a button, without any physical evidence that a purchase has been made. In just a manner of days, once the Bitcoin transaction is processed, the package is sent through standard United States Postal Service or Fed-Ex shipping, just like any run-of-the-mill letter or package in the mail.
Before Silkroad, drug markets required shady, corner side dealers or drug mules. Now, the main supplier is your inconspicuous neighborhood mailman who is unaware that some of his packages include highly illegal products. This form of drug transaction may seem threatening, but it’s a superb example of how technological conveniences of the 21st century make prosecuting drug users increasingly more difficult and impractical for authorities.
In essence, today’s black market has secretly gone online, and as a DEA agent, how do you see what’s not there?
As a website, the Silkroad underscores the level of craft drug users will turn to in order to circumvent their products’ illegality. No matter how illegal a drug may be — whether Schedule I or III — drug users will always find more sophisticated ways to get their fix. In this case, if the DEA were to pursue the illegal Silkroad sales, they would find neither names nor a paper money trail to follow.
However, this past year, two U.S. Senators sent a letter regarding the Silkroad to the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and DEA administrator, urging them to shut the website down.
The question I ask is what happens if the website is shutdown after the DEA spends countless amounts of money and manpower? It seems very likely that a new website will sprout up from the Invisible Web, followed by countless others. In this case, the cat may catch the mouse, but there will be thousands of other mice to be caught as well. The problem for the DEA is that targeting the online black market is not a war on drugs, but rather a war on technology that can never be won.
Instead of the DEA pursuing sophisticated Internet infrastructure like Tor and Bitcoins, our government ought to tackle the nature of drug addiction itself.
Spending taxpayer money pursuing the complex methods of distributing illegal drugs like the Silkroad is wasteful. Instead, our tax dollars should fund programs aimed at those who abuse drugs, not those who supply them. Without a steady demand for the illegal drugs offered on the Silkroad, the website has no purpose after all.
Michael Roe is not sponsored by Silkroad, but insists the site is classy with reasonably priced products.