After Silk Road

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The Internet routes around damage. With the fall of the Silk Road┬ácomes the inevitable expectation that the underbelly of the Internet is somehow cut and something important has been removed like a dark organ of indeterminate worth and function. This is not true. As we well know, the Silk Road was not the first nor the last online market – even as the Feds celebrate their victory the Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded are angling for the crown – but the destruction of the Silk Road and, to a degree, the recent comments by the Lavabit founder, show how deeply we trust the Internet with our secrets and how readily it gives them up.

We know, now, with certainty that nearly nothing is safe. However, we also know that modern encryption techniques can keep prying eyes out of nearly everything we see or do. Sites like the Silk Road are brought down by carelessness and hubris rather than technical know-how and I’m sure the FBI understands as much about the security systems put in place to protect clients as any other educated amateur. It is at the intersection of human frailty and rock-hard encryption that we find ourselves at a crossroads. The great machines can keep enemies at bay as long as the gatekeeper remembers to close the door.

Can we trust the cloud and can we trust anonymous services to truly keep us anonymous? Yes. However, the caveat is that when that trust is broken, it is broken catastrophically, taking down a swathe of the Internet with it. One part of the Silk Road fallout that I found particularly interesting was the site’s seemingly apocryphal ability to jettison deposited Bitcoin back to the owners in the event of a raid. While this behavior hasn’t been documented – it’s all rumor right now – it would be an amazing solution for future systems. By learning from the mistakes of Ulbricht and the like, we can build stronger and better systems for the dissemination of information.

While I don’t support what went on on the Silk Road – the hacking services and illegal gun trading alone made it more like the Wild West than Utopia, not to mention the alleged murder-for-hire plots – I do support its right to exist. No government should be able to shut down a conglomeration of like-minded people who wish to do business anonymously. We cannot judge the pot dealer or the LSD buyer any more than they can judge our habits and predilections. The morality of this can be debated but the right to an anonymous exchange cannot.

The Silk Road isn’t dead. The FBI knows that, Ulbricht knows it, the users know it. Just as the death of Napster didn’t stop the trafficking in downloaded music, this will not stop the trafficking in Bitcoin. Someone with a similar bent will build another Silk Road and another, eventually creating a machine that can bar the door without the gatekeeper’s intervention. Then, it seems, we’ll simply have to deal with a machine that refuses us entry because of our foibles and foolishness. The destruction of the Silk Road will teach the authorities a thing or two about Bitcoin and encryption but it will teach future Dread Pirate Roberts important lessons in evasion and obfuscation.