Prior to 2013, the term “Silk Road” was primarily found in ancient history textbooks and described a series of trade routes that connected eastern and western regions of the world. However, in recent years, the term reflects something much more sinister: an online bazaar for illegal goods valued at about $1.2 billion at the time of its demise. This cyber marketplace sold drugs, guns, counterfeit money and even cyanide. Ross Ulbrecht — who later went by the moniker the Dread Pirate Roberts, or DPR for short — created the Silk Road in early 2011 in an attempt to evade government regulation and call attention to his radical libertarian ideology.
In his book American Kingpin, Nick Bolton explores the creation of the site and the subsequent investigation that brought it and its inventor down. The hunt for Ulbrecht — at first his identity, then the man himself — eventually involved officers and agents from a wide range of government agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not to mention various senators, governors and former President Barack Obama himself.
The Key: A Simple Google Search
One of the most shocking revelations from American Kingpin was that IRS officer Gary Alford stumbled across DPR’s real name through a simple Google search relatively quickly after beginning work on the case. Alford realized that a user named “Altoid” posted in chat rooms about the Silk Road the week it launched and, most notably, before a Gawker article shed light on the site’s existence to the general public – just by filtering the date results on Google. Thinking “Altoid” may have something to do with the site’s creation, Alford dug a bit further, investigated the account and subsequently learned of an email address associated with it: RossUlbrecht@gmail.com.
Though we always emphasize the importance of going beyond Google and using a variety of resources to research individuals, including court documents, property records and commercial databases, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the power of Google’s search algorithm and its ability to cultivate information about a certain subject and an individual’s online footprint or activity. Digging through Google results (yes, beyond the first page!) and understanding search terminology to narrow and target searches is a key part of investigative work in the digital age.
The Obstacle: A Lack Of Communication
The case’s main obstacle was a lack of communication among the players investigating different aspects of the Silk Road. The government’s natural silos made it difficult for agents from the FBI, IRS, HSI and other agencies to share key information about their research into the site’s users, products, finances and creator.
When Alford raised his findings to the prosecutor, he was initially brushed off. Disheartened, Alford chose not to share the RossUlbrecht@gmail.com email address he had come across during a meeting with other government officials and law enforcement working on the case. Had he instead chosen to speak up and compelled fellow agents to consider the email address, the manhunt for Ulbrecht could have taken a lot less time and resources.
The Temptation: A Seemingly Untraceable Currency
Bitcoin’s seemingly untraceable nature led not one but two government agents to attempt to steal money from the very site they were trying to take down. When the Baltimore task force assigned to the case arrested Silk Road employee Curtis Green, Secret Service Agent Shaun Bridges used Green’s login credentials to eventually siphon $820,000 in bitcoin from users’ accounts and transfer it into his own personal accounts. Soon after, DEA agent Carl Force, who had created an undercover online persona to communicate with DPR, began selling DPR information about the government’s investigation for a total of $757,000 in bitcoin.
After the government arrested Ulbrecht and accessed his computer and the Silk Road’s innerworkings, they were able to trace back the funds to Bridges and Force. Not only was Ulbrecht ultimately brought to justice, but both Bridges and Force are also serving time and paid hefty fines for their severe misconduct.
Whether one is interested in the Silk Road site, its creator or the investigation that brought it all down, American Kingpin sheds light on the complexities of cyber investigations while delivering a thrilling real-life tale of danger, corruption and justice.