The trial for Ross Ulbricht, 30-year-old founder of the Silk Road website began today in New York City, This website was an anonymous black market whereby a variety of crimes were facilitated to include computer hacking, money laundering, and drug trafficking. However, this case could ultimately impact non-criminals as well.
Ulbricht’s case first caught attention over a year ago but due to the horrendous allegations, many believe the impact will reach beyond Ulbricht to non-criminals. For example, details about how the US government monitors online activity could be revealed. As such, there is the potential risk pertaining to legal liability relating to commerce for online contraband.
Sometimes called “Dread Pirate Roberts”, Ulbricht was arrested after allegations that Silk Road was created solely as a means of enabling users to buy and sell things anonymously on the “Dark Net”, using the payment method of Bitcoin. Although there were legal services and goods purchased and sold, the website was also widely used for drug trafficking, among other things.
Charged with being the mastermind behind a criminal enterprise, Ulbricht has maintained his innocence. However, if a court finds him guilty as charged, he faces a prison sentence between 20 years and life.
The bigger issue has to do with surveillance and anonymity. People who use the “Dark Net” believing activity is completely anonymous will likely get a huge wakeup call. In addition, the case could unveil the way people who conduct activity on the “Dark Net” are tracked by the government.
According to Darren R. Hayes, director and assistant professor of cyber-security at Pace University, the thing that is most interesting about the Ulbricht case is just how much activity occurs on the “Dark Net” but also that people involved with activities believe everything is anonymous.
Of all issues, the way the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) tracked the server responsible for hosing Silk Road is most controversial, especially since the server is a key piece of evidence. Interestingly, Ulbricht claims the server in question is not even his.
The FBI stated the server was traced using a captcha prompt on the website, which had allowed the IP address to be leaked. With this information, Iceland was identified as the server location. However, defense lawyers state the FBI’s explanation makes no sense. Additionally, Ulbricht supporters feel the government tracked the server down using illegal means, which if true, would violate Fourth Amendment rights.
The bottom line, the trial will expose truths pertaining to how the government is tracking things but also who is being watched. Hayes went on to say that looking at things from a technical perspective, the trial will provide detailed information as to how people on the “Dark Net” are actually tracked by the government.
For online businesses, the outcome of the trial could set a new precedent. After all, where the line is drawn regarding website operators being responsible for things that occur on their site. Obviously, Silk Road is unique since it facilitated criminal activity but other online operators might be pursued by the government by using the Ulbricht case to pave the way.