Rahul's Web Log

A Silk Road Eulogy

October 17, 2013

Originally published on Medium.

I call ye, oh entrepreneurs of Shadow. Come to me you profiteers and glory-seekers who fear not the market that shies the Light’s graceful touch. I present, an Opportunity!

The Silk Road has perished, laid low by the hand of the Law. Its leader lies bound in cuffs; its merchants scattered far and wide, unable to find customers. Coin sleeps unspent and unloved in the pockets of well-heeled junkies the mortal world over. Fields lie fallow and chemists idle, all for want of a market.

Should you hesitate to fill that void, product, hungry for a victim, will push its peddlers onto streets they long forsook in favor of a safe and profitable digital anonymity. The merry youth will grow dull, and the pacified sick will find pain again. The once storied shipments of the U.S. Mail will sag even sorrier still.

The Silk Road has perished; gone is a beacon of the unfettered Internet. The throne to the greatest market in the world lies vacant.

This is part eulogy, part call-to-action. For the unfamiliar, the Silk Road was a drug bazaar situated in the depths of Tor. Tor is a network built on top of the Internet that helps secure the anonymity of its users, meaning that many feel themselves free to engage in illicit activities they might not otherwise do online. As such, with Tor’s protection and through the efforts of its creator, known until his arrest only by his moniker the Dread Pirate Roberts, the Silk Road became the go-to place for drugs on Tor and by extension much of the Internet. Indeed, it facilitated an estimated $1.2 billion in transactions over its lifetime.

Regardless of your view on its custom, the Silk Road was undeniably special in its large-scale demonstration of Tor’s ability to protect privacy and anonymity. So many flocked to the Silk Road because so few places remain in the greater Internet where those ideas have any real meaning. Government subpoenas can force companies, web hosts, and Internet providers to divulge the actions of their users, and so those doing actually illegal activity learned quickly that Tor was a necessity. As lustily as John Perry Barlow once proclaimed the Internet a “global social space… naturally independent of the tyrannies” of government, a libertarian fantasy it was not to be.

Even so, when our government entered into the digital domain, who would have imagined it would shuck its founding principles so readily.

Until recently, I thought that the email services provided by respected and savvy companies like Google and Microsoft were a reasonable means of secure communication. I imagined that my Facebook chats and Skype conversations were but fleeting bits on a network. Perhaps they might be logged for my own use on their provider’s servers, but certainly they rested nowhere else. HTTPS actually meant cryptographically protected Internet transactions, and those cryptographic mechanisms were a mathematical guarantee of privacy.

That reality was fantasy. In actuality, our government through the NSA has been systematically violating our privacy through means including subverting the very foundations of Internet security. Building off allegations by Edward Snowden, the New York Times, the UK’s Guardian, and many other reputable news organizations have detailed the NSA’s unholy quest to capture as much Internet communication as possible. For those who haven’t followed the story, some of the highlights include PRISM — a program allowing the NSA to retrieve user data directly from companies such as Microsoft and Google, forcing the shutdown of secure email provider Lavabit because it wouldn’t comply with a sort of blanket wiretap order of questionable legal veracity, and the systematic weakening and circumventing of Internet security technologies allowing the decryption of a “broad swath of online services.”

The NSA’s actions are fundamentally unacceptable in a democratic society. The power and importance of the ability to communicate privately and anonymously can hardly be underestimated. Would MLK, or Gandhi, or even the founders of our country have been able to succeed should the powers that be wielded the surveillance machinery of the NSA? Speech, like drugs, can be anathema to government yet a cure for the people. We consider fundamental the right to speak and communicate freely, and in violating our privacy the NSA has simultaneously curtailed that right. Just as placing a tape recorder on every person to record and analyze every private conversation is unconscionable, so too is what the NSA has done.

The tragedy may be that we brought this upon ourselves. In our terrorism induced hysteria, we have demanded of our government a response incompatible with a free society. What the Silk Road shows, however, is that effective law enforcement can occur without the NSA’s blind blundering. While the NSA is certainly waging war against Tor’s protections, read the story of the Silk Road’s demise. All it took was good, old-fashioned, determined detective work.

Thanks for reading!

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