Academic journal article International Journal of Cyber Criminology

The 21st Century DarkNet Market: Lessons from the Fall of Silk Road

Academic journal article International Journal of Cyber Criminology

The 21st Century DarkNet Market: Lessons from the Fall of Silk Road

Article excerpt

Introduction

The rise and fall of Silk Road stands as one of the most unique stories in the history of the Internet. The Silk Road website was an international network of drug dealers and buyers that existed on the Dark Web, a portion of the internet that is unavailable by standard search engines. Through a sophisticated system that involved an anonymous, web-based currency, a military-grade private web browser, and a mysterious founder known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, the site managed to avoid worldwide law enforcement for almost two years. When it was finally seized by the FBI in October 2013, there were huge questions left in its wake. What was taking the FBI so long? Who is the Dread Pirate Roberts? And, perhaps most importantly, what happens to the dark net networks now?

The specific topic of Silk Road has been only minimally covered in academic literature. The current research includes only few academic studies: Van Hout and Bingham (2013, p. 385) conducted a single user case study of the site that shows how users buy products from the site's vendors and how they interact with each other through the site's discussion forum. Barratt (2013) conducted a study about Silk Road's potential for harm reduction among drug users. Christin (2013) did a more technical study about the volume of transactions on the site. The researchers describe Silk Road forum as a place where users could go to get information, discuss important issues about the site and its mission, and generally have a sense of community with one another.

All of the literature currently available about Silk Road has been published before October 2013, and therefore does not take into account the closure of the site in its' assessment of the user base. Furthermore, while some research has been done on individual users and the site's transactions, very little has been researched about the community as a whole. This research explores the behavior of the Dark Net user base surrounding the closure of Silk Road in October of 2013 with the intent of helping determine the future of the Dark Net markets, and what form, if any, a new version of Silk Road could take. This research also adds to the growing body of knowledge about the behavior of close-knit, clandestine groups on the Internet.

Literature Review

Since the study of the Dark Web is a new topic in academia, the available research on this topic is still limited. In this section, we examine the literature about Dark Web, the online black market user-base, Internet law enforcement, and virtual communities.

a. Dark Web

The Dark Web is the global network through which users accessed Silk Road. Dark Web consists of Internet content that is not accessible through standard search engines. Information on the Dark Web is typically not available to the general population, and is intentionally hidden from the regular Internet, known as Clearnet (see Figures 1 and 2 for details). One of the primary modes of Dark Web access is The Onion Router (abbreviated as Tor) which "covers your online tracks by blending your internet traffic into data from many servers worldwide to make you functionally invisible" (Hodson, 2014, p. 2). The Silk Road domain name, http://silkroad6ownowfk.onion,was only accessible through the Tor browser, and always consisted of a seemingly random set of characters followed by ".onion."

The Dark Web began with ARPANET, the Internet's progenitor that was developed by the Pentagon in 1969. As the inter-computer interaction began to grow, "a number of isolated, secretive networks started to appear alongside ARPANET" (McCormick, 2013, p. 22). These networks eventually became the medium of choice for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which introduced a browser called The Onion Router. Tor, as it is called now, "conceals the location and IP addresses of users who download the software" (McCormick, 2013, p. 22) in order to protect overseas American operatives and dissidents. …

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