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The Silk Road Takedown

Sometimes people forget that there is “more internet” beyond the search pages of Google, Bing, and Yahoo. The Deep Web, a term coined by web intelligence firm founder Mike Bergman, is comprised of a vast index of pages that is unreachable by standard search engines. On October 1st, one section of this “invisible internet” gained international exposure after authorities finally seized the notorious domain and arrested the site’s founder and chief operator.

Launched in February 2011, The Silk Road was an online marketplace where individuals from all around the world could engage in the anonymous exchange of illegal substances, products, and services. Commonly known as the “Amazon of Illegal Drugs,” the service allowed users to conveniently order products, ranging from prescription pills to fake licenses, and arrange for home delivery. By using the electronic cryptocurrency Bitcoins and a network system designed to conceal IP addresses, payment and personal information was virtually untraceable. Soon after launch, the network became a go-to source for illicit products and services. Among the 10,000+ products for sale were 340 varieties of drugs, a multitude of pirated digital goods, and 159 “services,” including computer hacking and hitmen.

After an exhaustive, several-year search by authorities, Ross William Ulbright was finally arrested at a public library in San Francisco on charges of narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, and money laundering. Additional investigations underway are also attempting to prove that he hired a hitman through the site to murder one user who threatened to expose the operation. Early efforts to publicize The Silk Road using Ulbright’s personal email address were finally connected to more recent Bitcoin forum postings using the same alias. And what was this forum post that eventually nabbed Ulbright? A job posting requesting an “IT Pro in the Bitcoin community to hire for a venture backed bitcoin startup company!” Investigators connected the dots in tracing his Gmail, LinkedIn, and YouTube accounts, eventually tracking his internet connection in order to ambush him in a local branch of the San Francisco Public Library .

The Future of Bitcoins:

Just how will the controversy surrounding The Silk Road affect the widespread acceptance or public image of Bitcoins? With the FBI seizing millions of dollars in the digital currency they are clearly being recognized as a legitimate form of money by the government, but will their reputation be permanently tainted in connection to seedy web activity? This is not necessarily true as the currency is being accepted by many legitimate online sites, including WordPress for account upgrades, certain Etsy vendors, and several non-profits looking for donations. (The Bitcoin wiki comprised an extensive list of vendors currently accepting the currency.) Current complaints against the currency include its volatile exchange rate, the lack of a centralized authority, an inflexible supply, and a high risk of loss. As a provider of business services in the technology sector, this story got us thinking. At some point in the near future should we be looking to accept Bitcoins as a form of payment? Will consultants prefer to be paid in Bitcoins?

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