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Crime & Justice

Meeting Dread Pirate Roberts, the head of the Silk Road illicit drug website

Logo for Silk Road anonymous marketplace.
Logo for Silk Road anonymous marketplace.
Silk Road

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An underground website, Silk Road, reportedly traffics between $30-45 million in drugs from pot to LSD each year. Given the nature of the business, the guy in charge is pretty hard to pin down.

He goes by Dread Pirate Roberts, a pseudonym that may ring a bell to "Princess Bride" fans. His two-and-a-half-year-old site has managed to operate under the noses of the DEA and FBI. 

One reason it's been hard to shut down is because it's run on Tor, a type of open source software that protects the user against surveillance.  To access Silk Road, users have to write a piece of Tor software and they can only buy drugs using the crypto currency called Bitcoin, a digital currency that's not controlled by any banks or any governments.

"That means that it doesn't have to necessarily tie to your identity, as a result it can be very difficult to trace the transactions," said Andy Greenberg, a technology writer for Forbes magazine, who recently scored a rare interview with Roberts. "You can privately and securely make these purchases of even very large amounts of highly illegal drugs."

But how is this possible, and why haven't authorities been able to shut the website down yet? Greenberg says its because of the effectiveness of the Tor anonymity software and the triple-encrypted communication that it uses. 

"I am sure the drug enforcement agency would love to locate the servers who run the Silk Road, or better yet the people who are behind it," said Greenberg. "Tor is a complex tool that triple encrypts web traffic and then bounces it around to different computers around the world. It can be very difficult to trace those communications and to find the source…It's possible that the NSA could, but it doesn't seem that the FBI or DEA has been able to."

Roberts's motivation is monetary, but he is also motivated by a political stance. According to Greenberg, Roberts considers himself a radical free market libertarian and he hosts a forum site where he posts political manifestos. Users see him as a sort of Che Guevara figure and a hero. 

"It is largely this idea of creating a free market that is not even the most powerful government in the world can regulate or enforce its laws upon," said Greenberg. 

Another reason the site has been so successful is Roberts's diligence when it comes to clouding his true identity. Greenberg spent eight months communicating with Roberts via the website trying to convince him to open up to an interview. Even though he eventually broke through, Roberts still withheld even the simplest facts, like his nationality, age, and whether or not he was in the U.S. 

Greenberg says he thinks the recent appearance of competitor sites, such as Atlantis, have pushed Roberts to dip his toe into the spotlight. 

"They have a marketing team that created a YouTube video ad, that's the kind of thing that Silk Road has never dared to do until now," said Greenberg. "I think that the Dread Pirate Roberts is realizing that he needs to have a public persona as well to compete with these newcomers."