Advances in encryption and other Internet technologies always had the potential to create an explosion of Web-based crime. But the recent prosecution of Ross Ulbricht and the shuttering of Silk Road, the illicit online emporium he is accused of creating, makes it clear that even sophisticated cybersuspects are vulnerable to dogged police work.
Under the protection of state-of-the-art technology, Silk Road users could buy and sell anything from narcotics to fake IDs online. As a further precaution, all purchases were conducted with bitcoins, an online currency that facilitates anonymous transactions and can be exchanged for US dollars. The FBI estimates that between 2011 and 2013, a total of $1.2 billion changed hands on Silk Road.
But ultimately, detectives found a way to bring Silk Road down. Using information gathered by staking out online chat rooms and by intercepting a package full of fake IDs in Canada, authorities connected Silk Road’s IP address to an Internet cafe in San Francisco and, ultimately, to Ulbricht himself. Those concerned that Internet crime will lead to intrusive online dragnets — and those who advocate for more latitude for law enforcement online — should take note of how the FBI finally caught Ulbricht: The power of deduction is just as effective against cybersuspects as it is on the streets.