New York City – On Tuesday morning jury selection will begin in the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged founder of the Silk Road online market place where goods and services could be sold and paid for anonymously using Bitcoin.
Specifically, Ulbricht has plead not guilty to trafficking drugs on the Internet, narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, computer-hacking conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy. The authorities will attempt to convince a jury that Ulbricht is Dread Pirate Roberts, the alias used by an individual or team of people who handled administrative duties on the website.
The Silk Road website and others like it are a part of what is known as the deep web, or sometimes the dark web. This internet beyond the world wide web offers access to products and services which are either illegal or taboo. This could include illicit drugs, fake identification cards, weapons, child pornography, or simply transactions taking place outside of the range of the government, without taxes. Customers pay for their purchases with the popular anonymous crypto-currency Bitcoin.
In order to access the deep web users download software such as the anonymous browser Tor. The details of how the deep web, bitcoin, Tor, and other underground internet infrastructure will be on display in a trial unlike any other before it. The trial may drag on for as long as six weeks, with the defense expected to challenge much of the 240 exhibits of evidence expected to be introduced by the prosecution.
The prosecution is attempting to prove that not only was Ulbricht the famed Dread Pirate Roberts, but he was active in the creation and distribution of illegal drugs. The prosecution is also attempting to tie Ulbricht to a murder for hire plot where they allege he solicited the murder of six people who threatened to release information about the Silk Road staff and users. A user going by the name FriendlyChemist was apparently going to publish the names unless paid $500,000. The government says Ulbricht paid someone $150,000 to kill the user.
Ulbricht has been charged for these suspected crimes in a court in Baltimore. Despite this the charges with still appear in submissions to the jury. These are known surplusage, or “uncharged crimes”, which are not official charges and do not require proof. Ulbricht’s team attempted to have this information blocked from trial but Federal Judge Katherine Forest rejected the motion. Despite this, the prosecution admits to having no evidence that these alleged plots were ever carried out.
The most dangerous aspect of the trial is something known as transferred intent. This doctrine will allow the government to attempt to convince the jury that Ulbricht is responsible for the activities of the website itself, whether or not he was directly involved. Ross’s mother Lyn Ulbricht has said that if the precedent is set during her son’s trial it could “put a chill on the internet.”
Indeed, if the governments arguments convince the jury that Ulbricht is guilty of the crimes by simply hosting them it could create a dangerous situation where website owners could be held responsible for users comments on a site, or for the products sold on ebay or craigslist.
As the IB Times wrote, “If found guilty he will go down as the first person in history to be convicted for the actions of the users of his website, rather than merely his own actions.”
When Ulbricht was arrested on October 2013 federal agents seized around $3.6 million worth of bitcoin. Ulbricht’s team attempted to keep documents seized by the government from being used in court. Judge Forrest rejected the motion. The authorities claim they were able to track Ulbricht after a simple hole in his security was allegedly located because of a faulty CAPTCHA page. The CAPTCHA page is a security feature that jumbles characters and asks a user to enter the characters to prove they are not a bot.
However, Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and University of California, called the FBI’s version of event “inconsistent with reality”. Online security and privacy researcher Nik Cubrilovic also called the scenario “impossible”. If the FBI obtained access to the website, and thus Ulbricht, through illegal means then the evidence could be thrown out. Unfortunately for his team to make that defense they would have to claim ownership of the site itself. Something they seemed determined to avoid.
A recently released list of evidence expected to presented by the prosecution outlines their plan to use screenshots of Ulbricht’s computers that allegedly link him to the Silk Road and Dread Pirate Roberts. The defense is expected to object to much of the 240 exhibits that will be presented.
The exhibits themselves should fill in background on how exactly the authorities located the sites servers, and who on the administrative team served as an informant to the feds.
Whether Ulbricht and DPR are one and the same remains to be seen. What we can pull from this trial already is the fact that Ulbricht is not the only one on trial. Internet freedom, Bitcoin, and the deep web are also on trial.
Perhaps the words of Dread Pirate Roberts himself illustrate the true reason for the government’s heavy pursuit of Ulbricht and others suspected of being involved in the enterprise.
Sector by sector the state is being cut out of the equation and power is being returned to the individual. I don’t think anyone can comprehend the magnitude of the revolution we are in. I think it will be looked back on as an epoch in the evolution of mankind.
For updates on the trial as it progresses follow Derrick Broze @DBrozeLiveFree and stay tuned to this blog.