An Interview With A Digital Drug Lord: The Silk Road’s Dread Pirate Roberts (Q&A)
Most black market drug lords don’t give interviews. But the Dread Pirate Roberts isn’t most drug lords. His website, the Silk Road, is designed to allow anyone to buy and sell drugs with the crypto-currency Bitcoin, using the anonymity software Tor to protect their identity. And those same anonymity protections have made Roberts confident enough in his security that he’s been willing to write about his illicit business under his pseudonym on Silk Road’s user forums and even giveshort comments to reporters in the past.
Now he’s gone much further. For a magazine profile in the current issue, Roberts engaged FORBES in his first ever extended interview. Over the course of five hours on July 4th, the Dread Pirate answered my questions–all routed through Tor and the Silk Road’s messaging system–on topics ranging from the Silk Road’s history to the site’s business model to his own personal details and motivations. Though dark web entrepreneur was unsurprisingly tightlipped on any information that might even remotely help law enforcement identify him, he did offer a few new revelations: The fact that he’s not actually the founder of the Silk Road, the possibility that the Silk Road may re-introduce weapon sales to the site, and his only-half-joking asking price to acquire the business. (Don’t insult him with bids less than a billion dollars.)
Here’s the full, slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
AG: What inspired you to start the Silk Road. Not just philosophically, (that’s covered in lots of your posts on the Silk Road forums) but where did the idea come from?
DPR: I didn’t start the Silk Road, my predecessor did. From what I understand, it was an original idea to combine Bitcoin and Tor to create an anonymous market. Everything was in place, he just put the pieces together.
Oh, apologies, I didn’t know you had a predecessor. When did you take over the Road from him? Before you announced yourself as the Dread Pirate Roberts?
It’s ok, this is the first time I’ve stated that publicly. I’d rather not say exactly when, for his sake mostly, but it was a transition that took some time. I was in his corner from early on and eventually it made sense for me to take the reigns.
Can you tell me anything about the original creator of the Silk Road? How did you meet? And did you acquire the Silk Road from him in a financial deal of some kind, or simply take over the project?
He was well compensated and happy with our arrangement. It was his idea to pass the torch in fact. We met through the site. I had discovered a big vulnerability in the way he had configured the main Bitcoin wallet that was being used to process all of the deposits and withdrawals on the site. At first he ignored me, but I persisted and gained his trust by helping him secure the wallet. From there we became close friends working on Silk Road together.
The Silk Road forums are full of comments from the Dread Pirate Roberts account. Did you write those?
The most I am willing to reveal is that I am not the first administrator of Silk Road.
Regarding the Bitcoin wallet exploit you found: Can you tell me anything more about how that worked? Would it have allowed theft of Bitcoins from the Silk Road’s wallet?
It would have allowed deanonymization of the wallet servers.
If you’re not the founder of Silk Road, which of its innovations are you responsible for? And what would you say is your role in the site/community?
At this point, the management of Silk Road is a collaborative effort. It’s not just me making sure Silk Road runs smoothly. So, while I make the final calls, I can’t take 100% credit for any of the innovation on Silk Road. More often than not, the best ideas come from the community itself. After all, they are the ones we are innovating for. For example, the recent upgrade allowing customers to view prices on Silk Road in their home currency, and allowing vendors to set their prices in their home currency was suggested over a year ago by a community member and has been on the master to do list ever since.
I would say my role is as a center of trust. The vendors trust me and the customers trust me and by extension they trust those on my team that decide who is right and wrong in disputes, and they trust me to be responsible for their funds in escrow. My role is also to provide vision and direction, to chart a course so to speak.
What would you say your title is, though? Are you essentially the owner of the site? Another way to ask this: How are the profits from the site divvied up among its staff?
I control the important Silk Road assets. Only I have access to the private keys corresponding to the Silk Road and forum URLs for example as well as my public PGP key. This ensures that when you see a signed message from me, or visit silkroadvb5piz3r.onion, you know you can trust it’s from me. I’m also the only one with access to the wallets that back the accounts and escrow on Silk Road, so there is no possibility of a rogue member of my team running off with the funds. Regarding profits, I’ll say this much… the vast majority are retained as assets of Silk Road and used to maintain and expand the enterprise and for future projects.
How many staffers are there working on the Silk Road?
I’d rather not talk about the internal organizational structure.
Speaking of future projects, let me jump right to another big topic: What’s next for Silk Road? You’ve mentioned a “next phase” of the site to me in our pre-interview conversations for a few months now, which you’ve hinted might go beyond selling drugs.
At it’s core, Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state. If they say we can’t buy and sell certain things, we’ll do it anyway and suffer no abuse from them. But the state tries to control nearly every aspect of our lives, not just drug use. Anywhere they do that, there is an opportunity to live your life as you see fit despite their efforts.
I’m hesitant to specifically declare the direction we’ll take next but let me give you a couple of examples. Firearms and ammunition are becoming more and more regulated and controlled in many parts of the world. We actually had a site up called “The Armory” at one point that specialized in the sale of small arms that ultimately was unsuccessful, but if we can find a model that works where people can get the equipment they need to defend themselves and their families despite what the state wants and often in defense of the state itself, I would be more than happy to provide that. Also, any place the State places large tariffs or taxes, there is an opportunity to circumvent their blockades. Consumer electronics are much more expensive than they need to be in many parts of the world, for example.
And one other big one I’d like to mention that is coming whether we do it or not is communication privacy. If it wasn’t clear before that the state is your enemy, it should be now that the biggest covert intelligence agency in the biggest government on the planet has been stealing nearly everyone’s private communications. We have the technology right now to make this impossible for them. End to end encryption and Tor need to become the standard for communications globally, just as SSL has. You must demand it from your communications providers. Again, if Silk Road can play a role in this transition, I’m more than happy to provide.
On that last point about secure communications services, is the Silk Road going to offer some kind of new secure communications product? Or do you just mean that you can already communicate securely through Silk Road, as you and I are doing right now?
What I mean is that, like Bitcoin and Tor coming together to spark the revolution that is Silk Road, end-to-end encryption and Tor can come together to spark a communication revolution. There are already products that offer this capability, but they are obscure and unused. What I am envisioning is that technology becoming the standard, but it will require more people understanding why they need it and demanding it from their communications providers. This will return the power of communication back to the people and with Bitcoin giving people control over their money and trade again, we’re talking about the potential for a monumental shift in the power structure of the world.
I’ll add that while it’s nice to talk about all of the possibilities, and there are many, there are still fundamental challenges facing the basic Silk Road model. Tor hidden services are far from perfect as was recently highlighted in a research paper out of the University of Luxembourg. Bitcoin exchanges are also evolving and responding to state intervention and it is unclear how easy it will be for people to buy and sell Bitcoins in the future.
Solving these problems is also a high priority.
On the subject of security: What really protects you and Silk Road’s users from law enforcement? I understand you use Tor, PGP, and Bitcoin. Anything else I’m missing? Are you confident that these things can stand up to law enforcement’s surveillance tactics? Or the NSA’s?
I am, unless they have cracked the modern encryption algorithms, which I highly doubt. There are a multitude of security measures we take to secure the infrastructure that powers Silk Road, but I can’t go into details lest I empower those that would try to do us harm. There are a couple of little features that aim to improve security, such as incognito browsing which hides all of the images and the Silk Road logo, so it will be harder to tell what you are up to if someone else is in the room.
How do you make sure that your Bitcoins aren’t traced in the blockchain? I’ve heard that Silk Road might act as its own Bitcoin “mix” or “laundry” to anonymize users’ Bitcoins (and yours) Is this true? How does that work?
Yes, we employ an internal tumbler for when vendor withdraw their payments, and a more general mix for all deposits and withdrawals. This makes it impossible to link your deposits and withdrawals and makes it really hard to even tell that your withdrawals came from Silk Road.