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Silk Road is an online black market which can only be accessed via The Onion Router (TOR) anonymous web browsing client. On the site, goods are sold in exchange for Bitcoins, a peer-to-peer digital crypto-curency created by Satoshi Nakamoto. Many of the sellers specialize in selling drugs, oftentimes shipping to countries where they are illegal to possess.
The Silk Road website began development in November of 2010 and was launched three months later in February of 2011. The site remained relatively unknown until June 1st, 2011, when Gawker published an article by staff writer Adrian Chen titled “The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable.” On July 28th, 2012, the tech news blog Gizmodo reported that a man from Melbourne, Australia had been arrested for attempting to import drugs purchased on the site. On August 1st, 2012, a paper titled “Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace” was released by Carnegie Mellon computer security professor Nicolas Christin, which reported that the site’s total sales had increased to approximately $1.9 million a month (shown below).
The Bitcoin protocol was first described by Satoshi Nakamoto in a paper distributed on a cryptography mailing list on October 31st, 2008. The Bitcoin network itself was created on January 3rd, 2009, which included the release of the first Bitcoins and an open-source Bitcoin client. Bitcoins use a peer-to-peer network that regulates the currency according to network software, with no more than 21 million Bitcoins issued in total by 2140. Bitcoins can be purchased and current exchange rates can be viewed on the MT Gox Bitcoin exchange.
The Silk Road website can only be accessed via TOR anonymous browsing client, which allows its users to browse the Internet anonymously by separating identification and routing, thus concealing network activity from surveillance. The alpha version of the TOR software was announced via FreeHaven.net mailing list on September 20th, 2002, followed by its presentation at the 13th USENIX Security Symposium on August 13th, 2004.
The site allows users to browse an online market through several categories linked in the sidebar, including drugs, apparel, books, digital goods, drug paraphernalia, erotica and forgeries. The drugs category contains several subcategories, including psychedelics, cannabis, dissociatives, ecstasy, opioids, prescriptions and stimulants. Buyers can register for free without an email but sellers must purchase a special account. Similar to other online marketplaces, users can rate their experiences with individuals sellers to report back if the product they purchased was of sufficient quality and delivered in a timely manner.
On June 6th, following the posting of Adrian Chen’s article, United States senators Joe Machin and Charles Schumer sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General urging law enforment to shut down the Silk Road website. On June 12th, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled “Drugs Bought With Virtual Cash,” reporting that the site would be moving to a new server in order to handle a marked increase in traffic. The article went on to report that Silk Road’s increase in popularity corresponded with a rise in the value of Bitcoins. On July 16th, 2012, Gawkerpublished a follow-up article titled “Are Authorities Closing in on the Online Drug Market Silk Road?”, which reported on rumors that had been circulating about authorities going after Silk Road’s administrator known as “Dread Pirate Roberts.” On June 30, 2013, the site was subject to a DDOS attack which limited access to it through the following day.