Via a popular online service, cocaine, prescription pills and heroin may just be a mouse click away from reaching your child
There is a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Traffic in which a teenage girl says something that has become, for the most part, a generally recognized truth about high school.
“For someone my age,” the character says, “it’s a lot easier to get drugs than it is to get alcohol.”
Indeed, typing the term “easier to get drugs than alcohol” into a Google search box returns more than 12,000 pages, with thousands upon thousands of Internet users stating what many parents fear – that for their children, obtaining illegal drugs is anything but a challenge.
What most parents are unaware of, however, is how the Internet is potentially making it even easier for youth to obtain drugs. In the 21st century, teens do not necessarily have to seek out dealers to procure marijuana or cocaine; in fact, scoring illicit substances these days could be as simple as turning on a monitor and making a few mouse clicks.
At first glance, the Silk Road – a popular online marketplace – looks like any other website; just passing by, one likely wouldn’t be able to distinguish the service from eBay, Craigslist or any of the myriad other electronic bazaars on the Internet.
But a closer look at the site reveals that the Silk Road is anything but just another Amazon clone. Marijuana, cocaine, party drugs such as ecstasy, heroin and even some illegal weapons can all be traded, bought and sold on the site – which, fundamentally, can be accessed by anyone technologically savvy enough to find it.
Dr. Monica Barratt of Australia’s National Drug Research Institute said that – even for the ordinary Internet user – discovering how to locate the service isn’t too difficult a task.
“I think that anyone with average Internet and computer skills could work out how to access the site within half an hour or less,” she said.
“However, it is one technical hurdle to access the site and another entirely to work out how to purchase drugs, and importantly, how to purchase drugs in ways that do not leave behind a trail of evidence.”
The Silk Road, a service beloved by techies and loathed by federal officials, is every bit as enigmatic as it is controversial. As with the nameless, faceless constituency of Anonymous – the world famous cadre of hackers that frequently target government and corporate websites – even the FBI’s most skilled trackers can have trouble fingering exactly who is operating the service, let alone where the physical location of the Silk Road’s mainframe actually is.
“I don’t think that anyone except the owner/s know where Silk Road is being hosted,” Dr. Barratt said. “Silk Road is a lucrative enterprise for the owner/s who take a commission from all sales, so I can only speculate that the owner/s would take great care to protect the site by continuing to mask the location of the hosting and any infrastructure involved.”
To many, the mystery of the Silk Road’s ownership is irrelevant; what’s important, they say, is that the site – somehow, someway – gets shut down.
The service, once called the “Amazon.com of illegal drugs” by National Public Radio, was a major bull’s eye in the crosshairs for legislators backing – and justifying- this year’s failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), with New York Sen. Charles Schumer describing the site as the “most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online” he had ever encountered.
The identity of who actually runs the service remains a mystery. Periodically, an administrator with the username “Silk Road” will post “official” statements on the Silk Road forums, and occasionally send what are essentially press releases to the media. According to the site’s apparent “admin,” what he or she (or potentially, they) provides is a relatively harmless service.
“Over 99 percent of all transactions conducted within the escrow system are completed to the satisfaction of both buyer and seller, or a mutually agreed upon is found,” the site’s administrator has posted on the Silk Road forums. Even so, the operators of the service do seem to have their limits as to what can be sold or exchanged on the site.
“Please do not list anything who’s purpose is to harm or defraud, such as stolen credit cards, counterfeit currency, personal info, assassinations and weapons of mass destruction,” one admin post reads.
Attempts to shut down the Silk Road, however, have proven incredibly difficult for U.S. agencies. While officials shut down MegaUpload – a Hong Kong-quartered file-swapping service frequently accused of promoting online piracy – earlier this year, United States officials have had little luck in their efforts to yank the site down, or even in determining who is running the service.
One reason it has been difficult to track down the physical source of the service is because, technically, the site isn’t part of the World Wide Web most Internet users are familiar with. Instead of entering a URL into a search box, the only way users can access the Silk Road is through the use of an anonymity network. The most popular of these is called Tor. This network masks browsers’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which are specific numerical sequences that correspond to fixed geographical locations.
Essentially, when users hook into an anonymity network, their actual locations are hidden from all but the most advanced analytic software, making third party tracking extremely difficult if not impossible.
Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, said that his company simply provides a service and the applications users find for IP maskers is something they have no control over.
“Silk Road is just a website that happens to use Tor’s hidden services,” he said. “Tor’s hidden services just give you an address, sort of like an IP address or a street address. What you do with the address is up to you.”
He said that the “deep web” – the portion of the Internet where sites such as The Silk Road are hidden – is a difficult concept to define.
“People think of the deep web like an iceberg,” Lewman explained. The average Internet user, he said, only sees the part above the water line, but the iceberg—the whole of the Internet—continues on deep under the surface of the water, hidden from view. “We generally call it the hidden web,” he added.
But Lewman is quick to point out that much of the deep web—the bulk of the iceberg under the water—is hidden for good reason.
“Things like your bank account are included in the hidden web,” Lewman said, “because you put a username and password in front of it—probably because you don’t want Google” to add your bank account to its index of websites.
Additionally, Lewman said that IP masking software has many security applications, especially for business data and journalists wishing to insure anonymity for sources.
“The majority usage of Tor is by just normal people, looking to protect their privacy online,” he said. “It’s sort of unfortunate that the press and media seem to jump all over the negative uses far more than the positive uses.”
To insure optimal levels of user anonymity, the Silk Road service uses a transaction system that sounds like it was lifted from a science-fiction novel. Silk Road customers do not exchange physical money on the site, nor do they exchange goods via credit cards or other online banking services, such as PayPal. Rather, Silk Road users pay for items listed on the marketplace with a form of electronic currency called Bitcoins.
“There are a number of ways that Bitcoins can be obtained and some of these ways differ between countries,” Dr. Barratt said. While Bitcoins can be purchased online through credit cards and bank accounts, she said many users prefer to use throwaway credit-cards or gift cards to make their purchases more anonymous. After Silk Road users obtain Bitcoins, they deposit them into accounts, which are then filtered through a tumbling service built into the site. Although this makes transactions more difficult to trace, Dr. Barratt said that the process still isn’t a completely anonymous one.
“Bitcoins can be used relatively anonymously, like cash, but can potentially also be used in traceable ways,” she said. “For example, if one bought Bitcoins with their credit card and then transferred the same amount into their Silk Road account to buy drugs, it may be possible to link these transactions through piecing together the amounts [and] the times of the transfers/transactions.”
While the computer know-how required to access the site and engage in commerce is most likely beyond the skill set of most juveniles, there is a possibility that more technologically adept youth could use the service to procure illegal goods. And even those lacking advanced technical knowledge don’t have to search the Web for too long to find information on how to access the Silk Road, as a number of how-to tutorials are available and easy to find on video hosting sites such as YouTube.
“I think that a teenager with modest technical skill would be able to access Silk Road, though it may be a bit more difficult for them to access Bitcoin in order to actually make a purchase,” Dr. Barratt said. “There are no age restrictions on Silk Road, not that age restrictions ever stopped teenagers from accessing other websites with restricted content.”
Dr. Barratt said that although the packaging used for Silk Road deliveries are usually intended to fool mail delivery systems and law enforcement agencies, she believes that the ultimate safeguard against the service may be mom and dad themselves.
“Of course, the drugs then need to be sent to an appropriate postal address,” she said. “For teens living at home, it can be a little harder to control who opens your mail.”
For further reporting on this story, check out our previous coverage.