You may not know the name Ross Ulbricht, but you almost certainly know of his alleged enterprise, The Silk Road. Best known as a dark web hub for buying and selling drugs using Bitcoin, the Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in 2013 after an investigation led them to Ulbricht.
Seen as the “CEO” of Silk Road, Ulbricht must now defend himself against charges of money laundering, engaging in a criminal enterprise, narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and a whole host of other crimes.
While the United States government thinks it has its man, more and more evidence comes to light that may indicate otherwise, as well as the defense team being saddled with disadvantages as the trial begins.
Before diving into the trial itself, it is important to understand the basics of Silk Road and how it was operated. Keep in mind, all of this has to be explained in detail to the jury so they’re able to understand the charges against Ulbricht, in addition to deciphering the evidence of his alleged crimes.
The Silk Road is part of the dark web community, a portion of the Internet not indexed by traditional search engines like Yahoo! and Google.
Instead of using these traditional Internet crawlers, one would have needed to download and use the Tor network. Tor was developed as an anonymous Internet network designed to prevent analysis and network surveillance. By anonymizing your connection to the Internet by bouncing you around servers, Tor is able to conceal your activity online.
For The Silk Road operators, Tor enabled them to maintain and run the website with almost certain anonymity and protection from surveillance. Which is where the first of many bizarre and inconsistent occurrences is seen.
Ulbricht was arrested in early 2014 and charged with his crimes soon after. His trial began on January 12, 2015. In that time, the FBI has not fully explained how they found the Silk Road servers that led them to Ulbricht.
In a report on Vice Motherboard, the FBI claims it found a weakness in the captcha on the front page of the Silk Road website. After attacking the weakness, the FBI uncovered the IP address of the servers, which then identified Ulbricht as the proprietor.
One problem with this explanation: It is untrue.
Industry experts and reports from Vice Motherboard, Wired, The Guardian and a host of other institutions have raised serious doubt about the FBI’s method. Even if what the FBI says is true, its method for finding the servers is hacking, a crime with which it charged Ulbricht.
According to experts, the method the FBI claims it used is simply not possible. Exploiting a weakness with the captcha is not enough to get you the IP address of the backend server. (If you want to read the FBI’s explanation about how it didn’t violate the Constitution and how the Constitution doesn’t apply to the FBI, read here.)
It goes even further than that. In Vice Motherboard’s article, sources and industry experts offer up another solution. Rather than using legal policing methods to discover the proprietor of the Silk Road, Ulbricht’s defense and those in the dark web community have offered up the theory that the FBI had assistance from the NSA.
Though it may sound farfetched, the NSA explanation is far more believable than the FBI’s explanation. Either way, it appears the FBI has lied in its court documents to conceal the actual method used to discover the site. What is the FBI hiding?
If true, this would be a serious infringement on Ulbricht’s rights, and would signal a dangerous turn in the way our country performs its law enforcement tasks. Instead of following the law and respecting the constitution, law enforcement agencies can cheat, break the law and instantly find the culprit of any crime.
You would think that the beginning of the trial would help to answer this question. You’d be wrong.
The government successfully argued to the judge that the witness list should be redacted and kept from the defense. This itself seems outrageous, but the reason behind the move is even more so.
The judge agreed that the witness list should be kept secret for fear the witnesses would be at risk of retaliation by Ulbricht in the form of cybercrime.
The only problem is that Ulbricht doesn’t get a computer or Internet access in his cell, and the small amount of time he does get to spend online is 100 percent monitored by the jail.
Instead of protecting the witnesses, it appears the government wants to make it as difficult as possible for the defense to succeed.
In addition to keeping the witness list from the defense, the judge will also allow the prosecution to mention and discuss the six times Ulbricht allegedly ordered the killing of rivals on the Silk Road network. Despite there being no charges of conspiracy to commit murder being brought against him, the prosecution will be allowed to tell the jury about it.
On the surface, this appears to be another attempt to set the defense back by making them explain what could be a separate trial itself in the middle of their arguments.
On day two of the trial, Department of Homeland Security agent Yeghiayan detailed the arrest of Ulbricht at a library in San Francisco. Interestingly enough, Yeghiayan breezed over how exactly he and an IRS agent pinpointed Ulbricht as the target of their investigation.
On day four of the trial, we were treated to even more intrigue, when the defense introduced the theory that the mastermind behind the Silk Road was not Ross Ulbricht, but rather, former Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpelès. T
he defense will attempt to argue that it was Karpelès who ran the site after Ulbricht gave it up in an effort to boost the value of Bitcoin. This was of value to Karpelès because his company, Mt. Gox, was a Bitcoin exchange.
The same Bitcoin exchange that mysteriously lost nearly 150,000 Bitcoins and went bankrupt last year. The same man whom DHS Agent Yerghiayan previously believed to be the operator of the Silk Road.
While he has denied any involvement in the enterprise, Karpelès will continue to be the focus of the defense’s argument going forward that Ross Ulbricht was a fall guy, not a criminal mastermind and drug kingpin.
The curious trial of Ross Ulbricht started days ago, and it already has shown us that it will have far-reaching implications. Whether it is the theory that the FBI had assistance from the NSA and/or CIA or the court stacking the deck against the defense, this trial will determine the way cybercrimes and crimes, in general, are treated in the future.
While you may not have an interest in the trial itself, you should have an interest in what it represents: The future of Internet security and policing are on trial; the future of personal liberties is on trial. We all have a stake in the trial of Ross Ulbricht.