Whenever the sudden collapse of a business affects people who pre-paid for goods or services they will never receive, the instinct to sympathize is irresistible. Be it those who lost millions in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme or £100 in the Christmas hamper firm Farepak, we feel for the victims of incompetence and fraud, and wish them the very best in recouping what they can.
In the case of Silk Road, which the FBI hopes to close after the arrest in San Francisco of its alleged founder Ross Ulbricht, the pity and kind wishes come less naturally. I am sorry if this offends any readers who recently made an order on the “dark Internet” site, which supplied every drug known to humanity and a range of other illegalities, but there is no sugaring this particular pill.
Face it, suckers, the crystal meth ain’t coming in the post. You will not be laying an itchy finger on that reconditioned Kalashnikov (one careful previous owner from the Mujahideen). As for the Mig fighter jet… well, it was never going to make it through the letterbox anyway, was it? And that contract killing of the guy who stole your missus? Frightfully bad luck, but you too have lost your dough.
This is not to disregard the misery of those who recently bought illicit items with “bitcoins”. I will not attempt to bluff any genuine insight, by the way, into this wildly volatile virtual currency (it was trading at the time of writing at about $US120 per coin, though by now it might be worth $US290 or 16 cents).
Someone once spent an hour explaining to me, very slowly, how this legitimate alternative to currencies controlled by governments (albeit one as liable to be misused as treasury notes) is “mined” with computing power. I understood less at the tutorial’s end than at the beginning.
The one thing I think I do grasp about bitcoins is that there will be no compensation for those spent, with the aid of encryption software to hide one’s online identity, on Silk Road. Even if an official receiver is appointed, which frankly seems unlikely, what is the frustrated purchaser of a hit job to request in lieu of five or 10 per cent of the outlay? The amputation of a couple of toes?
Mr Ulbricht allegedly ordered a contract killing himself, hiring a hit man for $US150,000 to murder a Silk Road drug dealer who tried to blackmail him. He has also been charged with seeking to have killed an employee whom he thought had stolen funds from him. Unfortunately, the hitman was an undercover agent.
There certainly appears to be something of the Wizard of Oz about the suspected Moriarty of the virtual underworld. After it became one of 2011’s more successful Internet start-ups, the anonymous mastermind of Silk Road became a source of wonderment.
With the curtain apparently drawn back, we find ourselves gazing in disappointment at a sweet-looking 29-year-old with a passion — and who’d have guessed this about an internet geek? — for Dungeons and Dragons-type fairy stories. It is alleged that such was his love for the film The Princess Bride that he adopted the sobriquet Dread Pirate Roberts after a baddie in the movie.
And apparently, such was his naivety that he left a startlingly easy-to-follow internet trail. For all the sophisticated encryption technology protecting customers, which remains impenetrable to law enforcers, he was detected because he used his real name in an email.
There will unquestionably be those who will consider the mastermind of Silk Road a counterculture hero, as perhaps they reckon themselves, for opening a new and devilishly effective defensive front in the “war against drugs”.
Evidently he had serious raw talent, but was undone by one tiny but fatally sloppy error. He is cybercrime’s Louis Mazzini, who elegantly wiped out his entire extended family in Kinds Hearts And Coronets, and would have enjoyed the life as the 10th Duke of Chalfont for which he worked so tirelessly had he not left his serial killing memoirs behind in the cell when released from prison.
Ultimately, the self-styled Dread Pirate Roberts was less a libertarian buccaneer of digital black marketeering than a very silly boy. Without discounting the wickedness with which he apparently tried to have people iced, there is always an undeniable poignancy in the chasm between a glamorized self-image and a nerdy reality (Julian Assange Syndrome by Proxy).
But let us not end on a dismal note. The cheering news, for any among you who recently ordered heroin or an AK47 from Silk Road, is that, although those particular bitcoins are gone for good, the gap in the market will soon be filled.
In the mid-Nineties, US drug enforcement agents thought it a game-changing breakthrough in the “war against drugs” when they captured a boat carrying vast quantities of the Medellin cartel’s finest cocaine. For the three weeks in which the traffic from Colombia diminished, it was. Within a month, it was restored to its previous level.
In the virtual criminal world, as in the real one, the villains will always be a few steps ahead of the good guys.