Ulbricht gets life

Tuesday 02 June 2015

The founder of the Silk Road will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Is a dark chapter in bitcoin’s history over?

The party is well and truly over for Ross Ulbricht, who is starting a double life sentence after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, money laundering and computer hacking. Ulbricht always claimed that he was not the Dread Pirate Roberts, owner of the dark market the Silk Road, at the time of his arrest, arguing that he had handed over control before many of the events of which he was accused took place. He was, he claimed, hacked and set up.

Read also: Does Obama really want your bitcoins?

These arguments did not convince or impress Judge Katherine Forrest, who said he was ‘no better a person than any other drug dealer’ and that the Silk Road - which he had founded as well as run throughout - had been his ‘carefully planned life’s work’.


A few mistakes laid Ulbricht's extensive criminal activity bare

The long sentence was applied as a deterrent to others who might think they can evade capture and consequences by using the dark web - accessible only by Tor - and ‘anonymous’ currencies like bitcoin to purchase drugs and other illegal goods and services. Ulbricht had pleaded with the judge in a letter not to give him a life sentence. ‘I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,’ he begged, admitting: ‘I’ve essentially ruined my life and broken the hearts of every member of my family and my closest friends. I'm not a self-centred sociopathic person that was trying to express some inner badness. I do love freedom. It's been devastating to lose it.’ Six people are believed to have died of overdoses from drugs bought from Ulricht’s site. Prosecutors also said that he had solicited six murders for hire, though no charges for these were brought.

Ulbricht was arrested after an online trail led investigators to him. Initially using an alias, ‘Altoid’, he had publicised the Silk Road on the web. But in a separate post using the same pseudonym, he had asked for developers with knowledge of bitcoin to email him on [email protected] When he was arrested in a public library, he was logged in to the Silk Road’s master account. It was downhill from there, and his last-ditch argument to the judge that he was taking dangerous activity off the streets didn’t play in his favour.

‘I remember clearly why I created the Silk Road,’ Ulbricht said in court. ‘I wanted to empower people to be able to make choices in their lives, for themselves and to have privacy and anonymity.’ Bitcoin itself is, of course, not as anonymous as many of the Silk Road’s customers believed, and since then a number of dark markets have been taken down. The blockchain’s transparent nature makes transactions highly traceable unless users go to some lengths to avoid it.

This is a desperately sad story in many ways, and a chapter in bitcoin’s history that will hopefully now end for good. Perhaps there are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this episode:

1) Privacy and anonymity are more elusive than many of us like to think.

2) Bitcoin can and is moving into a new era, when its murky past is left behind and it is not defined by its use by criminals on dark markets.

3) Don’t do drugs, kids. Or, y’know, hire hit men. Regardless of whether you buy them with bitcoin. No good will come of it.

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