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DoctorClu - the man behind drug site Silk Road 2.0 gets 8 years in prison

Catch Team | Updated on: 7 June 2016, 22:27 IST

The US judiciary just netted one of the deep web's biggest fishes. Brian Farrell, the man behind Silk Road (SR) 2.0 - an online black market platform where illegal drugs and contraband are traded - is now behind bars. Farrell, also known by his handle DoctorClu, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle on charges of conspiracy to distribute, among other things, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine on SR 2.0, a website that operates inside the dark part of the internet, a haven for all kinds of illicit activities.

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The arrest is significant because it brings into focus aspects of the Internet such as the dark web, encrypted networks and servers - which the average user is not aware of. But, to truly only understand the implications of his arrest, you need to get a grip on what the nature of the crime is. Here's a brief primer to give you perspective.

What's the dark web?

The dark web is an encrypted network that exists between specialised Tor (The Onion Router) servers and their clients. Websites on the dark web network may be publicly visible but the IP addresses of the servers that run them are concealed. It's near impossible to locate sites on the dark web using regular search engines. The sites manage to remain incognito precisely because they use encryption tools like Tor which other users need to have if they want access to the sites.

It's important here to make a distinction between the deep web and dark web. Deep web refers to all kinds of content of databases and other web services that aren't indexed by conventional search engines like Google. The dark web, however, is a small - but more media-interest driven space - under the larger deep web umbrella.

If you're already intrigued by servers like Tor here's a handy guide to using networks that'll help you trawl the Internet for things that would horrify Google and your office server admin.

Silk Road & Silk Road 2.0

Ross Ulbricht's LinkedIn profile is almost unassuming. He says he loves learning, studied physics in college and worked as a research scientist. Initially, his goal, writes Ulbricht, was "simply to expand the frontier of human knowledge." But the more he writes, the more ambitious things get:

Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort.

Turns out, Ulbricht's "point of effort" is what led to the birth of the (in)famous online drug site, Silk Road, which was launched in 2011. This novel platform, where you could buy most illegal drugs, was operated by Ulbricht under the pseudonym, Dread Pirate Roberts. (Fun fact - the pseudonym is most likely drawn from a 1973 William Goldman novel, The Princess Bride. The character of Dread Pirate Roberts was feared by many and was known for his ideals and disdain of regulation). Between 2011 & 2013, when the site was operational, it reportedly made close to $1 billion in sales.

But the FBI was on his tracks almost right away and, in May 2015, Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison after a federal jury in Manhattan found him guilty on charges including distributing narcotics, computer hacking, money laundering and conspiracy to traffic fraudulent IDs.

Late in 2013, Silk Road 2.0 was launched. Just like its predecessor, Silk Road 2.0 allowed users to trade drugs and most illicit items using the digital currency bitcoin. Again, in November 2014, came the announcement that federal authorities in Manhattan shut down Silk Road 2.0. The man behind this version, Blake Benthall, who used the handle "Defcon", was arrested. But one of his primary assistants, our main man Farrell, aka DoctorClu, slipped under the radar. Until recently, of course.

Farrell was in fact arrested in January 2015. He pleaded guilty in March and the quantum of punishment, announced recently, comes as the final nail in the coffin. The manner in which Farrell was arrested has also attracted media attention. Rumours went that the US government funded research at Carnegie Mellon University to analyse ways in which the Tor network's security system could be cracked.

When the actual court documents came out in February this year, it was confirmed that the US Department of Defense funded the research and subpoenaed its findings to locate Farrell. Ethics aside, if you're getting the US government to spend big bucks to help research ways to nail you, then it does kinda mean you're a genius. A flawed genius perhaps, whose talents veered off the 'normal' social path, but a highly astute individual nonetheless.

No wonder then that when federal officials interrogated Farrell and asked his help in nabbing other big players involved with the site, Farrell confidently remarked - "You're not going to find much of a bigger fish than me."

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First published: 7 June 2016, 22:27 IST
 
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