The Dark Web Drug Lords Who Got Away

WHEN ROSS ULBRICHT was sentenced to life in prison without parole last Friday, the judge in his case made clear that her severe punishment wasn’t only about Ulbricht’s personal actions in creating the Silk Road’s billion-dollar drug market. As Judge Katherine Forrest told the packed courtroom, she was also sending a message to any would-be online drug kingpins who might follow in his footsteps. “For those considering stepping into your shoes,” she said, “they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences.”

But despite Ulbricht’s ultimate punishment, the lesson for anyone closely watching the Dark Web drug trade has hardly been one of inevitable consequences. As independent researcher Gwern Branwen has documented in an ongoing survey of more than 70 Dark Web drug markets created after Ulbricht founded the Silk Road, only five of those sites’ administrators have been arrested. For many of the others, the security model Ulbricht pioneered—using Tor and bitcoin to protect administrators, buyers and sellers—has successfully kept law enforcement fumbling in the shadows.

In fact, the difficulty of laying hands on Dark Web drug market creators was one reason Ulbricht’s prosecutors asked for a lengthy sentence. If law enforcement can’t apprehend all Ulbricht imitators, went prosecutors’ argument, it had better compensate with harsher punishment for those it does catch. “Although the Government has achieved some successes in combating these successor dark markets, they continue to pose investigative challenges for law enforcement,” read the prosecution’s letter. “To the extent that would-be imitators may view the risk of being caught to be low, many are still likely to be deterred if the stakes are sufficiently high...”


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