Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind behind an online marketplace for all sorts of illegal goods, is set to go to trial this week. The man, a 30-year-old native of Texas, has been named by prosecutors as Dread Pirate Roberts, the creator and owner of the website Silk Road, where vendors and buyers exchange everything from illegal drugs, weapons, and fake passports via the anonymous browsing network Tor and the private online currency bitcoin.
In October 2013, Ulbricht was arrested at the San Francisco public library, where he was working on his laptop in the science fiction section. Prosecutors believe Ulbricht is hiding behind the name Dread Pirate Roberts, a pseudonym from a character in the movie "The Princess Bride," based on evidence collected from his writing style, travel records, computer files, emails, forum posts, and computer servers. At the time of his arrest, Ulbricht had open a page on the administrative panel of Silk Road and another page detailing the movement of cash to and from vendors and buyers on the site.
On Tuesday, the Manhattan federal court will select the members of the jury for the Ulbricht case, who will hear both sides of the case to answer the central question: Is Ulbricht Dread Pirate Roberts? Ulbricht says he is not and has pleaded not guilty. If, however, he is found guilty, he faces a minimum of 20 years of imprisonment on a count of running a "continuing criminal enterprise." He also faces six other charges for drug trafficking, distributing drugs over the Internet and conspiracy.
The prosecution has built a strong case supporting its claim, pointing to early forum posts and job advertisements made on websites such as Shroomery and Bitcoin Talk, where the poster pointed to silkroad420.wordpress.com, which contains instructions for how to get access to Silk Road on Tor, as well as questions posted on Stack Overflow about connecting to a Tor hidden service. Those posts, the prosecutors say, asked respondents to reply to rossulbricht at gmail dot com.
Central to the prosecutors' case are files collected from Ulbricht's laptop detailing how he allegedly hired assassins to murder six targets that posed as threats to the existence of Silk Road. One record dated April 2013, which corresponded with the date of Dread Pirate Robert's messages sent through the Silk Road system, shows Ulbricht "sent payment to angels for hit on tony76 and his 3 associates."
One of these "hits," the government says, is a former Silk Road employee whom Ulbricht accused of stealing money. Another supposedly threatened to post the names of Silk Road users, which would endanger the site as users would leave it if they saw cracks in the anonymity.
Although the murder-for-hire evidence is not enough to charge Ulbricht with attempted murder, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest is allowing the evidence to go to trial, accepting the prosecution's argument that it creates a clearer picture of Ulbricht as the creator and protector of Silk Road.
At the core of the defense's argument is how government obtained access to Silk Road's servers. The prosecution claims the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) got a lucky break when investigators encountered an error on the Silk Road page that leaked the true IP address. However, computer experts agree the methods used by the government sound more like deliberate hacking.
"There's no way you can be connected to a Tor site and see the address of a server that's not a Tor node," says Nik Cubrilovic, who has followed Silk Road since its inception. "The way they're trying to make a jury or a judge believe it happened just doesn't make sense technically."
Silk Road went into operation in January 2011 and was shut down following Ulbricht's arrest in October 2013. During that short span of time, the website facilitated $1.2 billion in sales and generated $80 million in commissions.
In Dread Pirate Robert's sole media interview, he tells Forbes' Andy Greenberg that he did not create Silk Road; he has a predecessor who founded the website and transitioned the leadership to him. He also says he does not allow the sales of goods that could "harm innocent people," including stolen goods, murder-for-hire services, child pornography, and weapons, although Silk Road had experimented in the latter.
"Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state," says Dread Pirate Roberts. "If they say we can't buy and sell certain things, we'll do it anyway and suffer no abuse from them. But the state tries to control nearly every aspect of our lives, not just drug use. Anywhere they do that, there is an opportunity to live your life as you see fit despite their efforts."
On drugs, however, Dread Pirate Roberts has a different stance. As long as people are not using drugs then go on to hurt people, he believes people have a right to choose whatever they wish to do with their bodies. Asked if he felt guilty about selling highly addictive and dangerous drugs, he says it is not for him or anyone else to feel guilty.
"People own themselves, they own their bodies, and it is their right to put into their bodies whatever they choose," he says. "It's not my place, or the government's, or anyone else's to say what a person does with their own body. Giving people that freedom of choice and the dignity of self-ownership is a good thing."
Those statements mirror the sentiments posted by Ulbricht on LinkedIn, where he said his goals had "shifted" and that he wants to "use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind."
"The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however," Ulbricht said. "To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force,"