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Revolution from a Raisin:

a historical investigation into technological trends

Derek Burns

Meth. Prof. Pacholl January 29, 2014

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The question of what role government ought to play in the freedom versus security of its constituents remains to be an essentially fundamental, ongoing and, as of recently, open debate between administrations and constituents. Yet, given the recent revelations of Edward Snowden the question of our privacy was one answered not by the American people but instead by bureaucrats from behind closed doors. Mr. Snowden illuminated a present nationstate which shared many components with Orwellian predictions and made previously illegitimate paranoia seem sensible. Even so, for the past number of years a group of people had been, for numerous reasons, arming themselves against invasions of personal privacy. The technologically enabled, hacker or internet renegade has constantly strove to distance themselves from the intrusive presence of watchful government agencies and very well currently possesses the technological mitigation to the omnipresent eyes of the NSA. Portrayed in the media, due to there inherently anti-establishment agenda, as social dissidents recent developments have shed light on their activities as largely self-occurring as they pose only a very limited threat to national security. What this subculture has accomplished in recent years should be recognized for what it is; digital obscurity, monetary freedom and economic experiments that successfully existed apart from government regulation. These developments and their implications are far reaching and the complexities of which should be further entertained. As FBI agents descended upon the Glen Park public library, tackled and handcuffed on the floor of the science fiction section lay Ross William Ulbricht. Allegedly, Ross had been tied to the cyber avatar Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) who was the lead manager and moderator of what Senator Chuck Schumer in June of 2011 described as a certifiable one stop shop . . .

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that represents the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen1. October 2nd, 2013, effectively marked the end of DPRs two and a half year stand-off with basically every criminal division the United States has an acronym for. Dread single handedly created and maintained the largest online drug distribution platform the world has ever been exposed to. Since its opening on the Deep Web, Silk Road: Anonymous Marketplace, retained over 1 million user accounts, was effectively responsible for an estimated $1.2 billion U.S. dollars in transactions, and netted the founder around $100 million in appreciated commissions of which investigating agencies could only locate around $30 million. The governments inability to uncover the proceeds and the length of time it took them to trace and effectively close the market can be attributed to DPRs utilization of two key technologies Tor and Bitcoins. The presence of Tor, an internet obscuration technology, created a separate internet known as the Deep Web, and allowed for a lack of traceability of all internet traffic to and from the site. The emergence of the digital currency Bitcoin, effectively allowed for all transactions to occur anonymously. These technologies essentially paved the way for the creation of such a market. Though numerous other technological safeguards were implemented, Tor and Bitcoin represented the most paramount elements which coalesced to allow for the precipitation of The Silk Road. The fact that all these technologies were combined to allowed for the invocation of such a market has engulfed the inter-web. Concurrently, how and why Bitcoin, Tor and the Silk Road were created hearkens to an intrinsic, revolutionary trend our society has begun exhibiting over the last 3 years.

Schumer Pushes to Shut Down Online Drug Marketplace, Last modified June 5, 2011, http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Schumer-Calls-on-Feds-to-Shut-Down-Online-Drug-Marketplace123187958.html.

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The Tor Project embodies online anonymity. Based out of Cambridge and registered as a U.S. based non-profit organization Tor was originally created and implemented by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and utilized technology known as Onion routing.2 Essentially, Tor services employed sophisticated encryption technologies which distributed ones internet traffic through multiple locations known as Tor nodes. These nodes are placed around the globe and are traversed before arrival at the targeted digital destination. When put another way, if one were to ship a package from New York to California with the return address on the package, the origin of the package could easily be traced. However, if one were to ship the package first from New York to Georgia, where the contents of package could then be placed inside of another package, listed with a Georgia return address, then re-shipped to its original California destination, the process of locating the packages initial origin of New York has effectively become more complicated. Tor essentially performs this same process with internet traffic. The Tor nodes re-package and re-ship the internet traffic multiple times and concurrently process multiple packages from multiple origins simultaneously, obscuring both the origin and destination of the package. Furthering the complication of this process was that many of these nodes existed in other countries which entertain different privacy laws and levels of international cooperation. For instance, if the U.S. attempted to trace internet traffic that had been routed through a Tor node located in Syria, the lack of international cooperation between the two countries would more than likely inhibit the U.S. from accessing their internet traffic log. Even if ones original location was within the U.S., the fact that it had been routed through Syria would create a digital fog that would obscure the digital signature from the initial

Tor: Overview, https://www.torproject.org/about/overview.html.en

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country which the traffic had emanated. Concurrently, the complexity and decentralized nature of the Tor service effectively thwarted the governments attempt to locate both the users and the servers of Silk Road. Thus far, Tor served to obscure internet traffic allowing one anonymous passage to visit an otherwise illegal website. As with any marketplace, payment in exchange for goods and services acted as the overt function of the Silk Road. Herein lies the intrinsic relationship the Silk Road had with Bitcoin. Originating in 2009, Bitcoin, the first system of digital currency, was anonymously introduced by an elusive online figure utilizing the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The concept had originally been proposed a year earlier in a paper he had drafted outlining the need for such a currency 3. Bitcoin, unlike credit card transactions where ones name, bank account and address were linked to the transaction, functioned as an anonymous method of real world payment which, when performed correctly, was essentially untraceable. Bitcoin has been equated to digital gold. One participated in a Bitcoin transaction in much the same way that one sent an email. Yet, the implications of a Bitcoin e-mail are that the contents of the message are an individual, encrypted piece of code akin to the serial number of a dollar bill. Through a sophisticated peer-to-peer confirmation system, these individual serial numbers are immune to replication and therefore retain their individuality and thus, given that Bitcoins are finite in nature, are embodied with value. Bitcoins in and of themselves are worthless; however, they are traded much like any other money on currency exchanges. What differentiated Bitcoin from traditional currencies currently available was the fact that their
3

Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin:A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, 2008 https://www.dropbox.com/sh/opb1qikawi0g95w/lQ96ZG-Hga/Bitcoin/BitcoinSatoshi%20%28the%20original%20whitepaper%29.pdf

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values are decided on open, unregulated markets. Unlike the fiat currencies currently in circulation, Bitcoin owes none of its value to a central, regulated banking institution, instead its value establishes itself through those wishing to possess and those wishing to sell over open, international exchanges. The lack of regulation and laissez-faire essence of the Bitcoin garnered immense support among the deep web and showed immense potential for real world transactions of monies. For instance, a Bitcoin exists outside of regulated currencies and therefore was not bound by international exchange restrictions such as taxes and tariffs. Just as one can send a free email from one corner of the world to any other, one can send a Bitcoin in a similar fashion. Concurrently, the fluidity, lack of oversight and emphasis on anonymity made Bitcoin a perfect candidate for an international trade in illicit good and services. Given the presence of these anonymizing technologies, the stage had been set for the inception of a site which exercised the untapped potential such an environment possessed hence the invocation of Silk Road: Anonymous Marketplace. The beginning of 2011 marked the beginning of the Dread Pirate Roberts grand experiment4. Extending the application of above mentioned technologies toward a real world functioning market place which embodied and stressed certain economic and philosophical elements was the Dread Pirate Roberts objective5. The Silk Road represented a community of like-minded individuals with similar, libertarian tendencies and understandings with respect to mind altering substances and the internet. Between the marketplace and the associated forums, users were encouraged to express their
4

Christopher Tarbell, United States of America v. Ross William Ulbricht, New York, September 27, 2013 https://www.rossulbricht.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/20130927-Ross-Ulbricht-Silk-Road-New-YorkCriminal-Complaint.pdf 5 Andy Greenberg, An Interview With A Digital Drug Lord: The Silk Roads Dread Pirate Roberts (Q&A) Forbes, August 14, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/08/14/an-interview-with-a-digital-drug-lordthe-silk-roads-dread-pirate-roberts-qa/

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opinions about everything from philosophy, drug culture, experiences, legality and safety. The users unified behind the site and their leader. The Dread Pirate Roberts reveled in his position and very vocally spoke on a number of different topics. Occasionally he allowed certain news outlets an interview which was the case with Forbes in August 2014. This extensive interview gave the world a glimpse into the motivations and management of the market. When asked regarding the future of his site DPR firstly replied with his definition Silk Road and stated , At its core, Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state. If they say we cant buy and sell certain things, well do it anyway and suffer no abuse from them. But the state tries to control nearly every aspect of our lives, not just drug use. Anywhere they do that, there is an opportunity to live life as you see fit despite their efforts6. DPR made no attempt to hide his intentions with this site. The creation of the Road itself appears indicative of a blatant attempt to subvert authoritative aspects of government. Just the same, Roberts described the purpose of his site in respect to personal liberties and oppressive governmental policies, a intentions which are closely related in all above mentioned technologies. Silk Road existed as the largest semi-organized movement of libertarian counter culture we have ever seen. The fact that in a very short time over 1 million people rallied behind an idea thats sole purpose was to exist apart from governmental interference remains astounding. More so, 43% of shipping origins were listed as being within the United States while 35% listed the US as an acceptable destination, therefore it can be assumed with a general degree of certainty that in upwards of

Andy Greenberg, An Interview With A Digital Drug Lord: The Silk Roads Dread Pirate Roberts (Q&A) Forbes, August 14, 2013 http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/08/14/an-interview-with-a-digital-drug-lordthe-silk-roads-dread-pirate-roberts-qa/

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50% of Silk Roadies were in fact American7. Over 500,000 americans participated in DPRs experiment and this willingness to evade governmental influence on such a large scale hearkens to an ever growing trend of government mistrust. Whether it be through the utilization of Tor, Bitcoins, or anonymous markets people are moving into a digital realm which safeguards privacy. These technologies focal points revolve around the concept of privacy from an overly intrusive and socially stagnant governmental institution and the invocation of such technologies hearkens to an utter dissatisfaction with the current political, socio-economic landscape. From Edward Snowdens recent revelations regarding government surveillance to the United States removal from the Wall Street Journals Top Ten index of economic freedom, the presence of big government has been suffocating the American people and in turn, their movement to the digital front represents their most hopeful gasping breath to escape their oppressions. More so, given historys repetitive nature this freedom repressed populace, alienated by wars and economic insufficiency will inevitably regress to addiction in much the same way as they did in the late 60s and early 70s8. Where does this leave us? Essentially, the tools listed above allow one a reclamation of both the right to privacy and pursuits of happiness. Through technology, people have begun to implement their own, non-violent re-organization of the status quo. Ultimately, these recent developments in US history represent the beginning of a digital arms race between the government and the governed of which only time will tell as to its success and the outcome of which will prove to dictate our lives in the coming years.
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Christin, Nicolas. 2012. Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace. (July 30, 2012): arXiv, EBSCOhost (accessed January 16, 2014). 8 Pull from Williams paper

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function as the beginning of any organized influence and or mitigation of power from the current empowered institutions.

The fact that people are devoting their lives to creating technologies which

Tor, Bitcoin and Silk Road were formed or are being utilized as a means of mitigating the stranglehold big government imposes on its constituents. The shear numbers of

He then takes his disdain one step further by a

enlightenment

could only see that traffic had passed from the US into Syria and from Syria to then one can assume with a degree of certainty that Privacy

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Technological arm race between people and their government

Bitcoin and tor coming together to spark the revoltion that is Silk Road

Protection of privacy