News has surfaced that the DEA has made its first seizure of the online currency Bitcoin; a landmark moment for law enforcement’s battle against online drug sales. Many drug users scour the “Deep Web,” using the encrypted online currency to purchase illicit narcotics from the online drug marketplace Silk Road. This has attracted the attention of law enforcement officials, who are suspected of having something to do with the recent issues with the site, and the news of the seizure may spell the beginning of the end for buying illicit drugs online. But is the seizure what it seems, or a mere “honeypot” trap that ultimately will never bring down Silk Road or any similar site?
The Deep Web, Bitcoin, and Silk Road
The Internet can basically be likened to an iceberg, with the tiny visible portion poking its head out of the surface being the content accessible via search engines such as Google. The rest of the Internet, the huge, ordinarily invisible bulk of the content out there, is termed the “Deep Web.” It’s an online Wild West, complete with hit men, drug pushers, thieves, and outlaws of various descriptions. It can only be accessed with The Onion Router (TOR), which provides unparalleled levels of anonymity to browsers, enabling them to engage in more nefarious activities with significantly reduced risks.
Bitcoin is the currency of the Deep Web, and an emerging economic force in the eyes of some, operated on an open-source, peer-to-peer basis and offering complete anonymity. Every transaction is logged, but tracking down individual users still proves difficult. The currency also fluctuates in exchange rate quite rapidly, being almost impossible to predict. It’s gaining legitimacy as a currency, though, but the biggest fear is the fact that it’s primarily used to pay for illegal services provided by criminals.
This is largely due to its use on Silk Road. This is one of the poster-boy sites of the Deep Web, and it can be simply described as an illegal drug-peddling version of Amazon or eBay. Users make purchases, which are shipped through couriers in discrete packages, all from dealers on the site. Silk Road functions more like legitimate sites than you might expect, with customer reviews of each seller serving to put users’ minds at ease.
The anonymity of Bitcoin and Silk Road, which is the key point about the Deep Web, presents obvious problems for law enforcement officers. That’s why the recent seizure is such monumental news. According to the DEA, 11.02 Bitcoins (currently valued at over $800) were seized from Eric Hughes, which he used to purchase a controlled substance. This actually occurred in April, but the news has only just surfaced.
The story seems to present some hope for law enforcement officials, and more importantly serves as a warning to users considering purchasing illicit substances from the site. Bitcoin and Silk Road, it seems, have attracted far too much attention to escape legal action for much longer. The problem is that Bitcoins are not entirely anonymous, because although transactions are logged using random strings of numbers as user information, they can still sometimes be tied to an individual through PayPal or other sites.
However, information about the “seizure” is still very scarce, and this has led several online bloggers to question the use of the term, speculating that all isn’t exactly as it seems.
A Honeypot Account?
The blog Let’s Talk Bitcoin! argues that the Bitcoins weren’t actually seized in the conventional sense of the word, instead being captured by a “honeypot” account on the Silk Road site. This basically means that DEA agents had set up an account on the website offering to sell users illegal drugs and using the information they obtained to seize the digital money. In realistic terms, this isn’t a “seizure,” it’s more like waiting for some Bitcoins to fall into an open net. The online “wallet” of Eric Hughes wasn’t raided for Bitcoins; he assumedly gave them up willingly.
This seems like an irrelevant detail, but it’s far from it. If the DEA had successfully traced a Silk Road transaction and made an active seizure based on information they’d obtained, it would be much more significant. However, the news is still an effective warning for Silk Road users: the DEA is watching the site, and agents are taking steps to catch users and presumably to shut the site down.
Don’t Walk the Silk Road
The site that proclaims anonymity and links users to copious amounts of narcotics is not as untouchable as it once seemed. The Silk Road is being publicly compromised, and this is undoubtedly just the beginning. The initial seizure may have been a honeypot operation, but the message comes through loud and clear. Without even getting into the numerous life-destroying risks of the substances themselves, walking the Silk Road—or any other site offering the same service—is fraught with danger.