The mere mention of the dark web is enough to send shivers down the spine of anyone with a casual understanding of the internet. It's the modern version of the Wild West: a lawless frontier of encrypted networks where untraceable currency can buy anything - even an end to someone's life. A place where oligarchs run trafficking rings and credit card numbers are easy to obtain for a few hundred dollars. But what is the dark web? Simply put, it's the part of the internet that is not accessible by search engines. It's predominantly on encrypted networks, almost all of which use the Tor encryption tool. While it's true the dark web is mostly anonymous, unlawful activity is only a small part of what happens there. The rest is mostly local chess clubs and social media sites for encryption enthusiasts.
This doesn't mean the dark web is completely harmless. Just look at the Silk Road drug website, an encrypted dark web site that started as a forum for buying and selling substances before evolving into a notorious market where just about anything could be bought and sold, from forgeries to contract hits.
Where did it come from, and what happened to the Silk Road? The fortunes of the marketplace were closely tied to its founder, a man named Ross Ulbricht. Users of the Silk Road knew him by his username: Dread Pirate Roberts (a reference to The Princess Bride). Ulbricht grew up in Austin, TX. He was an Eagle Scout, got a full scholarship to UT Dallas, and earned a degree in physics. After graduating in 2006, his interests shifted; within five years, he was enmeshed in the world of trafficking, money laundering, and allegedly, murder.
It's hard to pin down a specific date for the founding of something like the Silk Road. According to legal documents related to charges against Ross Ulbricht, however, money began flowing on February 6, 2011.
In Ulbricht's journal entries, he talks about the early days of the Silk Road:
Only a few days after launch, I got my first signups, and then my first message. I was so excited I didn't know what to do with myself. Little by little, people signed up, and vendors signed up, and then it happened. My first order. I'll never forget it. The next couple of months, I sold about 10 lbs of ’shrooms through my site.
The first orders of mushrooms were actually grown by Ulbricht himself in a cabin in Texas. The intention of the Silk Road was always to become a broad marketplace, though, using a combination of Tor and bitcoin to connect vendors and customers anonymously.
By the end of May 2011, the Silk Road was growing, but it was still a niche platform known only to the dark web community. That all changed in June when the website Gawker published an article on the Silk Road.
The Gawker piece emphasized the libertarian attitudes of many of the site's users. Ulbricht himself encouraged users to "[s]top funding the state with your tax dollars and direct your productive energies into the black market."
But the Gawker piece did more than just spread news about Ross Ulbricht and his users' political ideas. It also led to a spike in traffic to the site, as well as growing attention from both public figures and law enforcement agencies.
A few days after Gawker's article on the Silk Road, which was subsequently reported on by multiple outlets, US Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York became the first public figure to make a statement on the dark web marketplace.
At a news conference, Schumer struck a tone of anger and amazement at the scale and scope of the operation. He laid out what was then understood about the workings of the dark web, calling the Silk Road transactions "virtually untraceable." He went on to say:
The DEA has confirmed they are aware of the site, and while they won't confirm or deny that an investigation is underway, from my years of experience, I'd bet my bottom dollar in this instance there is one underway.
The DEA and other law enforcement agencies have not made public when they became aware of the Silk Road or when they began their investigations of it, but undercover operatives were reportedly infiltrating the site by November 2011.