The Deep Web
Directed by Alex Winter (2015)
The Deep Web is about the January 2015 trial of the alleged founder of the Silk Road website Ross Ulbricht. In addition to exploring Ulbricht’s background and the history of the Silk Road, the documentary also lays out some pretty revealing evidence US District Judge Katherine Forrest disallowed at trial. Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment for drug sales, money laundering, hacking and engagement in a continuing criminal enterprise (kingpin charge). The filmmaker clearly believes Ulbricht was denied a fair trial.
The film begins by explaining what the Dark Web is, ie the unindexed records on the Internet. The Dark Web, which is thousands of times larger than the visible Internet, includes millions of bank records, as well as private and government administrative records. It also includes illicit sites like Silk Road.
Silk Road was created in 2011 by combining two cryptographic technologies: TOR (an open source technology originally developed by the US military), a browser that allows a user to access the Internet anonymously, and bitcoins, a cryptographically generated currency which, unlike bank-generated currency, is virtually untraceable.
Silk Road Founded as Political Statement
Silk Road didn’t actually buy or sell drugs. It simply provided a secure eBay-type marketplace where buyers and sellers could link up anonymously. Over time Silk Road developed an extremely tight knit user community that participated in the site’s political forums. One of the lead administrators, who took the screen name Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR)*, always maintained that Silk Road was less about selling drugs than making a political statement. DPR presented himself as a free market libertarian and talked a lot about resisting state efforts to control every aspect of our lives. All the Silk Road administrators were unified in their desire to end the war on drugs** and the extreme violence associated with it.
This fundamental nonviolent stance was reflected in their refusal to accept sellers offering products or services that caused people harm, such as prostitution or child pornography.
The Cryptoanarchist Movement
The Deep Web also provides interesting background on the radical cryptoanarchist movement that would eventually lead to the emergence of Wikileaks, Anonymous and Silk Road. A primary goal of this movement has been to create a world where the government can’t spy on everything we do. Members feel they have an implicit duty to develop encryption tools that non-tech savvy Internet users can employ to protect their privacy and anonymity.
Before the FBI shut it down in 2013, Silk Road had over one million registered users. According to cops, judges and FBI and DEA agents filmmakers interviewed, the site accomplished its goal in reducing violence associated with the drug trade.
Judge Disallows Evidence of FBI Crimes
The defense Ulbricht attempted to present was that he founded Silk Road but wasn’t Dread Pirate Roberts, as the prosecution claimed – that the individual using this screen name had taken over the website and framed him.
In March 2015, two federal agents were indicted (after a nine month investigation) for infiltrating Silk Road and stealing and extorting millions in bitcoins from Silk Road clients. These agents had high-level access to administrative functions of Silk Road, thanks to an administrator they arrested who turned informant. These federal agents had the power to change access to administrator platforms and passwords and to change PIN numbers and commandeer accounts, including that of DPR. They also had the means to manipulate logs, chats, private messages, keys, posts, account information and bank accounts. And they had the motive to alter data in order to cover up their own actions and point guilt elsewhere.
Judge Forrest barred Ulbricht’s attorney from presenting any of this evidence at trial.
She also disallowed evidence the FBI had illegally hacked into Silk Road’s servers in Iceland without a warrant – a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure. If her ruling is allowed to stand on appeal, it sets a dangerous precedent for allowing evidence resulting from illegal government hacking to be used at trial.
*Dread Pirate Roberts was a fictional character in the novel and movie The Princess Bride. In both, when the original Dread Pirate Roberts dies, his successor takes up the alias.
**The libertarian think tank Cato Institute has taken the position that the US should legalize all addictive drugs as Portugal has done. See The Cato Institute and the Drug War