In February, 2015 Ross Ulbricht was found guilty in New York on all counts for continuing criminal enterprise, narcotics-trafficking, money-laundering and computer-hacking. The Silk Road saga is far from over today. New developments keep surfacing, rumors and endless speculation from the internet grandstands. Current information on Ross is scarce as he is not speaking with reporters at the advice of his attorney from prison. But there is plenty about him that is public knowledge.
Ross was a boy scout and an eagle scout growing up in Austin, Texas. He received a full academic scholarship to the University of Texas majoring in physics. He went on to Pennsylvania State University where he completed his masters in materials science and engineering. His Linkedin profile at one time stated he wished to, “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind.”
This stands strongly juxtapose to the murderous international drug kingpin portrayed in other media sources. The digital world has been playing close attention to Ross’s trial. This is due to all the areas of society, responsibility, and cyber law that it touches upon and generates precedents for. There has never been a trial like this in the history of humanity.
Ross, in essence, provided the world’s first censorship resistant marketplace. This market was one of the most exciting things to happen on the internet since the age of Napster. A plethora of goods, products, and services were available for purchase anonymously using bitcoin as a means of currency. The site worried less about illegality and focused on providing anything someone could want to buy.
The users visiting the Silk Road mostly wanted illegal drugs, but other goods benign and otherwise were offered. This included but was not limited to carding equipment, paid accounts for popular websites, books and guides, medical supplies, and anything you couldn’t buy in a normal retail store. (There were also listings for things as sinister as poisons such as cyanide but the legitimacy of these services were not verified and no reported cases of their use has emerged. There were listings that obviously were fake or fraudulent and never materialized the promised service or good.)
Silk Road was the first time in internet history with a centralized review center for illegal products with specific vendors. Just like Amazon, if your product from a third party seller was lackluster, there was now a place to report your experience and warn other users. The types of reviews ranged from shipping time or stealth, product quality, or dangerous cuts in harder drugs. Vendors now had to be accountable to their customer base unlike traditional street dealers who you are likely to never see again once you make your purchase.
Silk Road was run over TOR, the popular anonymizing network on a corner of the internet known as the darknet. The name, “Darknet” may sound insidious initially but this region of cyberspace is more of a neutral space in favor of privacy and freedom of communication. It has been used by political dissidents in censorship laden countries, privacy advocates, hackers, and by journalists communicating sensitive information. This neutral liberty of judgement is where the Silk Road rooted their principles. Ross created a free and open market for vendors of all spectrums of the capitalist rainbow to sell their goods and services.
The internet at large has combed over the trial evidence and observed perceived shortcuts of the justice system, playing fast and loose with the truth, and unfair sentencing. Ross’s guilt on some level has been established already by his own admission of creating Silk Road as an, “economic experiment” which it very much was. His level of continued involvement and responsibility remains disputed. It’s fair to say the Silk Road trial is a complex issue that may require revisiting as time goes on.
At the heart of it now is Lyn Ulbricht, the public face of her son’s defense. Advocating for him where he cannot with Ross’s attorney Joshua Dratel. I spoke with her recently and had a chat:
Lyn: He’s intentionally staying positive and keeping his eye on a positive outcome. There are many important precedents that will be determined by his appeal that impact internet freedom, privacy, Fourth Amendment rights and more. As far as passing time, Ross is studying artificial intelligence; has taught two GED classes to other prisoners, as well as tutoring others. Now he is mostly concentrating on helping his lawyers with the appeal. He tries to stay productive. Spending time in prison is such a waste of humanity. For the most part inmates are just killing time. Most are non violent. I’ve gotten to know many of them and their families and it is heartbreaking, especially for the children. Here we are in the 21st century essentially still putting people in dungeons. Most of the media is always about the criminality of the drugs and that’s so not Ross.
Me: We just saw Shaun Bridges admit to a massive $800,000 theft from Silk Road. If he had access to the main funds of Silk Road, what else did he have access or influence over?
Lyn: He is a computer forensic expert. He and Carl Force had free, unfettered access to the site, including DPR’s account. He was able to log in to all accounts on Silk Road including DPR’s. They had the means to manipulate logs, chats, private messages, keys, posts, account information, bank accounts. They also conceivably had the motive to alter data in order cover their own actions and direct attention elsewhere.
Pre trial, our lawyer and Ross knew about this corruption. and argued this should be known to the jury. But was told “it would jeopardize our investigation.” This turned out to be false, as the agents had already been interviewed by law enforcement and knew they were being investigated. And now, even though they have pled guilty, the government is still keeping much evidence under seal. They also didn’t require the decryption of numerous emails by the agents, so that information is hidden. It makes me wonder what the government is hiding.
Me: How will the appeal be different to the trial?
Lyn: In an appellate court they take judges from three states instead of just New York. They decide whether the law was applied correctly, not the facts of the case.
Me: Is there anything you can share regarding the approach the defense is going to make in the appeal? Will Ross be testifying? Has any new evidence surfaced other than the corrupt agents?
Lyn: I can’t share specifics, I can say there is a wide range of pre-trial, trial and sentencing issues that merit consideration. Which ones are presented is a strategic question that gets resolved after the attorneys flesh out the issues.
[The corruption charges brought against a DEA agent and Secret service agent can be reviewed here. Ross’s defense was not allowed to mention this investigation in the trial.]
Lyn: Our witnesses were blocked from testifying. Dratel called for a mistrial five times. He was blocked from cross examining witnesses.
[The jury was, like most people, illiterate about the workings of crypto-currency. Andreas Anotonopoulos was tapped to explain how bitcoin works. But was removed from the witness list for being under qualified. Despite being “unqualified” Andreas has made a career for himself as a Security and Distributed Systems Expert specializing in bitcoin. Anontopolous has spoken in front of various legislative and professional audiences about the inner workings of bitcoin.]
Lyn: “Day three to day four were different in regards to the multiple DPR theory.”
[This is a reference to the admission by a DHS agent admitting under oath that at one point Mark Karpeles was suspected of being the Dread Pirate Roberts. The judge found this relevant until the next court date where it was no longer deemed to have weight in the trial. Part of Jared Der-Yeghiayan’s testimony was edited down on the basis that, Der-Yeghiayan’s words were “beliefs” in lieu of “competent evidence,” and thus should struck from the record as “hearsay,” or unsubstantiated rumor.”]
Lyn: Der-Yeghiayan, a federal agent and the government’s own witness, testifying under oath, had another hour to go [of testifying] and was shut down. The judge said it was valid and relevant, after the weekend the line of questioning became ”off limits.”
[The agent’s statement is especially important because it injected a potent form of reasonable doubt that was not allowed to be explored.]
Me: Even though Silk Road was not created for drug use specifically, you have accidentally become the kind hearted mother at the heart of the on-going drug war debate. How has this experience morphed your political ideologies and feelings of the Drug War at large? Has your opinion on others personal choices changed from this experience so far?
Lyn: I wasn’t really that aware of the drug war per se’ that much. However, now that I’ve looked at it more, I realize they are not waging this drug war because they care about drugs. It’s more about expansion of government power. It’s shredding our rights in many respects. Half of federal inmates are there because of the drug war, and most of them are nonviolent. I believe we have personal responsibility and should be able to make personal choices.
[It is worth noting that if someone tried to post an illegal item for sale on Amazon they would be shut down and their information forwarded to law enforcement. The difference with Silk Road lies within not reporting the action and response to the listing.]
Me: The families of the victims of Silk Road drug overdoses were paraded through the courtroom at the sentencing. The connection to Ross wasn’t ever clearly made. While tragic, do you think these victims were Ross’s fault? The Vendors? Or ignorance of drugs and their risks?
Lyn: It was very tragic and heart breaking and I am not defending drug use or Silk Road for that matter. However, I don’t see how a website host should be held responsible for the actions of end users. Somewhere along the line we have to take personal responsibility. We hired a pathologist to go over each of the six fatalities. He concluded that there was no way to tell if drugs caused each death, if there were other medical issues, or if they got the drugs from Silk Road. The overdoses were not brought up in trial, they were not scrutinized for legitimacy. It begs the question: are doctors that prescribe Oxycontin responsible for the many resulting deaths or addiction caused from that?
In addition Judge Forrest swept aside academic studies on harm reduction, the failure of draconian sentences on drug users to deter crime and the pathology report. She set herself up as an expert in the face of all this expertise.
[On FreeRoss.org Lyn has posted an email from a vendor known as PlutoPete who claimed that DPR subsidized the costs of drug testing kits on the website. This claim could be verified with a PGP signed message, but it was not provided on FreeRoss.org.]
Me: Has any new evidence on the multiple DPR theory become public? Has there been any contact from Variety Jones?
Lyn: No. I’ve had people contact me and say they know Ross isn’t DPR, that there were many DPRs, but I’m unsure if they are legitimate. Alex Winter interviewed people high up in the Silk Road hierarchy who said there were multiple [DPR’s] and that it was common knowledge.
[Since this interview was conducted Variety Jones has come forward with allegations of corruption and kidnapping threats towards Ulbricht’s family. These claims are so far unverified and there have not been any updates since September 2015 on the issue.]
Lyn: Inigo [one of the former staff of Silk Road] was going to take the stand, and then was pulled off. Dratel wanted to read one statement from Inigo, but was not allowed to.
Inigo and DPR set up a prompt for each other, but when Inigo prompted DPR later, DPR didn’t know the prompt. The prosecution feared that revealing this to the jury would put doubt in the their minds that Ross was the one and only DPR, so they asked to block it and the judge did.
[To verify that two parties were talking to the same individuals a prompt is used. Such as, “I like Daisies.” and the other party would respond “Roses are better.” By agreeing on a prompt such as this it provided an effective method of identity verification. Inigo had attempted to verify DPR’s identity at one point and DPR at the keyboard did not respond correctly, indicating that this DPR was a different person.]
Lyn: Is it possible from a laptop in a cafe to run a 24/7 empire? At one point, he [Ross] was in Costa Rica with me and his father for six weeks during 2012 with primitive and intermittent internet access yet the site kept on working.
[Running an international marketplace is not something that you can drop out of for six weeks. Which on some level confirms Ross was not operating the site solo if at all.]
Me: What do you think the world needs to know about this trial/appeal that is left out of the mainstream narrative?
Lyn: This case isn’t just about one man or website. It is going to determine much about how we go forward into the digital age. It addresses some very important precedents and issues that could impact all of us. There is a fourth amendment question, the question of the US seizing a server in a foreign country without a warrant. and the type of warrant they used to seize Ross’s laptop, among others.
They used mostly digital evidence in this trial. Whether or not you believe their evidence…it significantly lowers the standard of evidence at trials. Digital material can be created out of nothing. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this is a threat to us all.
Me: We’ve still had nothing but silence on the “murder for hire” claims that remain uncharged. Yet they were mentioned in his sentencing and in Shaun Bridges’s testimony. Has anything new emerged from the murder for hire charges information for or against the charges?
Lyn: They never formally charged Ross for this, and of course he’s not convicted for it. It seems wrong to sentence someone for an allegation that was never proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom, yet this issue strongly drove the sentencing.
Me: There is *some* guilt to Ross by his own admission. What do you think a fair sentence would have been if you were dictator of the courts for a day?
Lyn: Every non-violent person should not be in prison. There are better and more humane ways to deal with that. If I had the power I’d let him walk out today and allow him to make a contribution to society. I don’t think people should be in jail for drugs. If I could wave a magic wand and free my son now I would.
Me: How’s the fundraising going? Are you near goal? What support can the world lend you if not donations?
Lyn: We’re not near the necessary goal. Although we are so grateful for all the help we have received, and which has enabled us to come this far, we still need help. We are kind of on our last legs personally. We gave up our house, we live in a tiny, inexpensive apartment. We are living very frugally to pay for lawyers. Every cent that’s raised goes to fund the appeal. We do need help.
Me: The CIA once got caught for selling Cocaine during Iran-Contra. HSBC was caught laundering cartel money. The ATF sold guns to cartels in the Fast and Furious operation. Heroin production from Afghanistan has sky rocketed after the US occupation. Somehow no one important went to jail for these crimes or only paid fines. How does this double standard strike you in the context of the situation?
Lyn: They are really big on moral superiority in their courtroom. I think, and I’ve said this publicly, what our government is doing to our freedom is far more dangerous than one man and one website could ever be. They use the drug issue and other issues as distractions, and mean while our freedoms are being eroded.
Me: While this situation is costly, nerve wracking, sad, and seemingly endless do you take any comfort in the legacy Ross has created and the dialogue he has opened up to the world?
Lyn: Ross is all about freedom and I know his intentions were good. I believe his create the site was naïve, but then again Ross is an idealist and doesn’t have a criminal mind. He didn’t intend it as a drug site, but as a true free market. However, I’m trying to focus on the bigger issues, like our right to a fair trial. Without that we are all in big trouble, it is a pillar of our liberty. I’ve been appalled at what I’ve seen our government do and how they operate. That’s why people are afraid of the government now, which is a terrible thing. We had people afraid to analyze the evidence in fear of losing government contracts or afraid to have their name associated with a donation to our defense fund. So while it’s easy to be distracted by the sensationalism of the Silk Road case, there are bigger issues at stake and I intend to continue to speak out about them, even when Ross is released .
Me: When is the appeal?
Lyn: The appeal will be filed Mid December. Then it takes about 3 – 6 months.
Me: Thanks for talking with me today Lyn.
According to the New York Times it costs $168,000 per year to house an inmate in New York. Assuming that price tag remains static and Ross lives another sixty years, it will cost over ten million dollars to keep him locked away for the rest of his life. This does not take into account future inflation, or rises in the cost of housing for prisoners. It also does not factor in the massive costs of the investigation to taxpayers and the money spent by his family to cover his defense which may also be in the millions by the time this case is resolved.
With Ross’s sentence, the dark net markets still marched on. Even today you can access /r/darknetmarkets and get the latest happenings or information on buying on the markets. Some markets have scammed their users and left, some are on hiatus for security reasons. There are still markets easily accessible by anyone with a computer, or even a mobile phone. Anyone can still order Cocaine or Meth on the internet and likely receive it quickly. Busts happen from time to time, but entire markets don’t go down often and new ones come in to replace the ones that fall. The money for the operators of the markets is too good to pass up and this allows them to recruit top talent in the darker corners of the internet to keep their site safe.
The markets still allow access to illegal services and goods despite millions spent by the governments of the world. All further generations of the DarkNet Markets are the spawn of Ross and his team. A billion dollar industry created from the failed policies of a dying paradigm of the United States federal government.
As stated earlier contact with Ross has been highly limited at the request of his lawyer. Ross did release a letter to the attendees of Porcfest and the internet at large giving them an optimistic status update and a thank you. If Ross’s appeal fails and he is interned for a life sentence he will become another victim of the endless and senseless drug war that is waged on the human race. His face will forever be interred into the halls of correctional facilities. He will not be with his family as they age and pass onto the next realms. Ross has been given a slow death sentence. The saddest part of all this is that Ross’s story is not unique. To-date billions of dollars have been spent locking up non-violent offenders like Ross. Families beyond the Ulbricht’s have been shattered over the natural desires of humans to alter their consciousness without harming others. The statistical harms of the drug war can be found here. There are reasons that prisons need to exist, but they should not be filled with non-violent offenders. Ross wrote another letter before he faced sentencing to Judge Forrest. I would like to conclude this piece with a segment of that letter.
“I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age. Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker.”