In a development that those involved in the project clearly should have seen coming, the FBI today shut down Silk Road 2.0, the revival of the deep web black market site that the FBI took down in September 2013, and arrested its suspected operator exactly one year after it went live.
Blake Benthall, a 26-year-old San Francisco programmer who claimed to work for SpaceX, was charged with conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking, which, the FBI reminds us in a press release, “carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison,” among other charges.
Another user, using the alias “DPR2,” resurrected the Silk Road a little over a month after FBI investigators arrested the now-infamous Ross William Ulbricht, who used the moniker “Dread Pirate Roberts,” as the chief proprietor of the original Silk Road last year. DPR2 reportedly altered the FBI’s original shut down notice with a declaration: “This hidden site has risen again,” according to USA Today. By December, Benthall, operating under the username “Defcon,” announced that he had taken control of the site, suggesting that DPR2 was facing legal trouble in the fallout of the original Silk Road case.
The Silk Road 2.0 made use of all of the same anonymity tools – Tor browser, Bitcoin – and even one-upped its predecessor by using a Bitcoin tumbler program designed to make transactions even more difficult to trace, according to USA Today. But Benthall also hired an outside developer who happened to be an undercover Homeland Security investigator. Ultimately, the investigators found Benthall’s email address linked to records for servers hosted in foreign countries.
In the wake of Benthall’s arrest, lawmakers have lined up to tout their prowess over black market internet services. FBI Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos is quoted as declaring “Benthall should have known that those who hide behind the keyboard will ultimately be found.” And Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara reached for headlines with a terse warning: “Let’s be clear – this Silk Road, in whatever form, is the road to prison.”
Benthall’s biggest mistake was the use of the Silk Road brand name for the service. In its last investigation, the FBI has been accused of bending the rules by breaching Silk Road servers in Iceland without warrants, and judges don’t even seem to care that they did. Why would Benthall and his cohorts think they could taunt the FBI by using the same name without inviting just as much heat?
The only logical explanation – and I’m using that term lightly – is that the Silk Road brand name had become too valuable to pass up. The site had been quite successful in its resurgence – the FBI claims that by September, Silk Road 2.0 “was generating sales of at least approximately $8 million per month and had 150,000 active users.”
But that name was just as antagonistic to law enforcement as it was recognized among potential customers. And it’s not like there’s any shortage of alternatives. A quick Google search for “deep web black market sites” brings up dozens of results. And a very prescient Newsweek article published just over a month ago profiles the most successful newcomers that have thrived since the Silk Road’s demise last year.
The situation is reminiscent of the Napster case in the early 2000s. After becoming too big to remain unnoticed, the file-sharing site was finally brought down in court. Its founder famously went on to other tech ventures, the latest being a much more legal approach at disrupting the music industry, but in the years after, thousands of lesser-known services popped up to serve smaller segments of the same large market. The online black market is like a hydra – every service that gets cut down is quickly replaced by several more. The Silk Road Sequel may be dead forever, but the market can just open a new tab.