The Silk Road will surely go down in history as the modern age’s first infamous, grand, technology-driven bootlegging empire. The black market website, hidden behind layers of anonymizing software, offered users a safe and easy way to buy and sell narcotics. Its most infamous products, shipped in the mail right under the fed’s nose, included Schedule I drugs such as heroin, cocaine, hash and LSD. And the deviance did not end there; false documents, weapons and computer hacking services are also known to have been available, all comfortably dealt using an untraceable currency in an untraceable realm.
The site’s accessibility, guaranteed anonymity and narcotics-on-demand reputation soon led to its domination of the U.S. black market over the course of three years, garnering media attention, public fascination and $1.2 billion in sales. And the FBI seemed powerless to stop it. The Silk Road, thanks to a program called Tor, managed to keep its physical location and owner’s identity secret, despite connecting with tens of thousands of Internet users daily. For a long time, all that was known of the owner was that he went by the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, an ode to the 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride.
But Dread Pirate Roberts’s sloppy beginning soon caught up to him.
On Oct. 1 at San Francisco’s Public Library, while unknowingly instant messaging about The Silk Road with an undercover FBI agent, Ross William Ulbricht was arrested in a quick and quiet sting operation. He was charged with drug trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering conspiracies, and will likely also be pursued in the botched assassination of a blackmailer who threatened to leak the identities of the site’s users unless paid $500,000.
But Ulbricht’s appearances and lifestyle do not quite add up to the drug kingpin reputation he had made for himself. Standing tall and skinny behind prescription glasses, the caucasian embodies the ideal personification of his graduated major: physics. When he is not busy laundering millions in dirty money, he enjoys yoga classes, hiking and parties. Politically, he is a stark libertarian and avid Ron Paul supporter.
He is a geek, a 29-year-old libertarian, physics graduate, computer scientist in California. White, tall, skinny, glasses; that is who ran the first truly modern drug empire. And could have kept running it, had his amateur mistakes in the beginning not given him away.