Imagine one day in the far-flung future, when you can log on to your starship computer and browse through an unrestricted, online marketplace that safely sells every illegal drug imaginable—as if eBay and Erowid had decided to merge into a single website.
What if you could go to this fabled website, click on the section labeled “psychedelics,” and then browse through competing ads for LSD, magic mushrooms, DMT or MDMA?
What if the sellers of these products were user-rated, like Amazon and eBay, so that you could see how reliable other buyers found their service?
What if this website allowed you to carry out all your transactions risk-free, with complete anonymity, and what if you could order just what you wanted and have it arrive in your rented mailbox a few days later?
Welcome to the future.
The Silk Road Anonymous Market Place is an underground website that sells illegal drugs and other clandestine items. The recently unveiled site is accessible only by using an application known as Tor, which makes all of the user’s online actions anonymous and untraceable, and can be downloaded for free.
Once you’re logged on to the Silk Road site, every illegal drug imaginable is brazenly displayed for sale.
All financial transactions on the underground site are made using “Bitcoins,” a form of electronic currency that allows users running the application to anonymously exchange funds worldwide, through a common, encrypted exchange system that is independent of any banks or government. Popular among Libertarians, Bitcoin currency can be as anonymous as using cash.
To learn more about Silk Road, and about the Bitcoin economy that fuels it, I interviewed transmedia writer/artist Joseph Matheny, who is an expert on computer encryption and the underground Internet economy. According to Matheny, ordering from Silk Road is generally safe, if you know what you’re doing and take the proper precautions.
“The transactions are only as safe as the due diligence one does,” said Matheny. “Bitcoins are sent to and from Bitcoin addresses, which are essentially random numbers with no identifying information. ... If the identities of the people using the Bitcoin addresses are not known, and each address is used only once, then this information only reveals that some unknown person transferred some amount to someone else.”
Of course all of the transactions on Silk Road are completely illegal, but it seems that there is little that any government can do to stop it, short of outlawing anonymous Internet browsers like Tor, or anonymous currency like Bitcoins. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer has called for Silk Road to be shut down, but this isn’t easy to do, and even if Silk Road is shut down, a similar site can just as easily pop up and take its place.
The deliberately unmemorable Internet address for the Silk Road website is easily located on Wikipedia (ianxz6zefk72ulzz.onion/), although it can only be accessed using Tor. The website itself can easily shift from server to server, and everyone who uses it remains completely anonymous through layers of encryption. Even the URL is encrypted.
People that I’ve spoken with here in Santa Cruz who have used the service say that it works well, and that the lingering statement on Silk Road’s public website (silkroadmarket.org/) that says “the server went down unexpectedly today,” is a decoy, and the site is up and working just fine. One user told me, “In all cases, I did the due diligence before buying and was not disappointed.”
Matheny says, “Anonymity is protected in layers ... Tor was originally designed, implemented, and deployed as a third-generation onion [multilayered] routing project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It was originally developed ... for the primary purpose of protecting government communications—so, it is robust. But it is not 100 percent foolproof, so we add more layers of encryption.”
To stay anonymous on Silk Road, Matheney recommends, “... not revealing any identifying information about yourself in connection with the Bitcoin addresses you use.”
“If you post your Bitcoin address on the Web, then you’re associating that address, and any transactions with it, with the name you posted under. If you posted it under a handle that you haven’t associated with your real identity, then you’re still pseudonymous. For greater privacy, it’s best to use Bitcoin addresses only once. You can change addresses as often as you want. Transfers by IP address automatically uses a new Bitcoin address each time.”
Matheney suggests that people purchase Bitcoins with a money-backed account like Dwolla. “Transfer money to the Dwolla account from an anonymous prepaid account like Netspend Ace Elite, or any number of similar cards. These function as a credit card or checking account, with account numbers and routing numbers. They can be bought at a number of places, anonymously with cash. Use an anonymous P.O. box to receive your goods.”
As long as two people are running the Bitcoin application, then the anonymous digital economy can continue to operate with a currency that no one can stop. This will certainly be a very interesting phenomenon to follow, as I’m sure that it won’t be long before competing sites spring up.
This material in this column is presented for informational and educational purposes only. All quotes are printed with permission.
To find out more about Silk Road see: gawker.com/5805928/the-underground-website-where-you-can-buy-any-drug-imaginable
To find out more about Joseph Matheny ’s work see: josephmatheny.com
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