When you hear “The Silk Road” you may vaguely remember the ancient trade route linking East and West from your Civilization 101 class. Recently, however, “The Silk Road” refers to a massive online black market for drugs.
If you’re not a particularly tech minded individual, it might come as a shock to learn that there is more to the internet than what you can find with google. A LOT MORE.
Google indexes the internet. When you search google, you’re only looking at what google has a record of. I’ve tried to find concrete numbers on how big the internet is and how much google has indexed, but there is a lot of conflicting data out there, much of it three years old or older. One site suggests google says the internet has 30 billion webpages. It’s not clear if these are the pages google has indexed, or if this is what google estimates is the total number of webpages. Other sites suggest that google has only indexed 0.004% of all the content out there on the internet as of 4 years ago. (Which is ancient history in tech terms)
Regardless, the internet is split into two parts: The surface web, what you can find with google, and the deep web, everything you can’t find with google. That’s right. You’re entire experience with the internet thus far has only touched the very tippy top of the massive iceberg. The vast majority of what makes up the internet is not accessible by a google search.
The Silk Road is one such resource.
Enter Ross Ulbricht:
Ross has been arrested by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations and accused of maintaining a server in Iceland that hosted the billion dollar drug marketplace. Ross maintains that he is innocent and many people in the tech and security industry are raising questions as to the legality of how the FBI went about collecting evidence for this case.
In order to discuss the actions of the FBI and the US government in this case, I think it’s important for us to briefly discuss the relationship between the government and laws. It’s a relationship that affects every aspect of our lives and where I think The Silk Road case is a great example of the perverse nature of this relationship.
As human beings we have always yearned for absolutes. For most of our existence we’ve clung to absolutes such as gods to give our lives meaning, structure, and as a reference point for morality.
Absolutes provide security, stability, and predictability. There are many things in life that require absolutes in order to function. For example: you couldn’t drive down the road safely if a red stoplight did not always mean stop, and a green stoplight did not always mean go. If it was completely arbitrary and seemingly random as to what the light meant at any given time, accidents would be rampant as everyone would be confused as to when it was safe to drive on.
Furthermore, sporting events would be impossible if there were no absolute rules to the game. There would be no way of deciding if any given play or action was permitted or even when one side had scored. The whole concept of a game rests on the absolutes set out in the rules of the game.
The laws of governments are, in theory, absolute. These absolutes give society the framework that it needs to function. These absolutes can range from something as small as “red traffic lights mean stop, green traffic lights mean go” to something as grand as human rights like free speech, freedom of conscious, freedom of movement, and the right to due process.
These absolutes are supposed to restrict the actions of the government and people in society in much the same way the rules of a sporting game restrict the actions of the players.
In a soccer game, only the goal keeper is allowed to pick up the ball with his hands, and even then he can only do so in a limited space on the field. The players range of movement is also restricted by the lines marking the edge of the field. A player is not permitted to run behind the goal or outside of the lines. If they were able to do this and get away with it, then they’re not playing a fair game of soccer.
Unfortunately, we face a similar situation with governments. Let’s continue the soccer analogy. Imagine one team is the government and the other team is the people. Now imagine the government team keeps making illegal moves like running outside of the lines or picking up the ball. Furthermore, the referees judging the game do not take any action against the government team for breaking the rules. However, if a player on the peoples’ team breaks the rules they are punished.
It would be completely unfair and pointless to play the game. The two teams are operating under different sets of rules. The people’s team has a restrictive set of rules, with punishments for breaking those rules, and the government team has seemingly no rules and no punishments. A fair and stable game is impossible when two teams are operating on two different set of rules.
You might object to comparing government with a soccer team and referees, but it is similar.
The government carries out two functions: writing the rules and enforcing the rules. In modern western governments the task of handling these two functions is usually split across three groups: the legislative, the judicial, and the executive.
The legislative group writes the laws, the judicial group decides how the laws are applied, and the executive group enforces those laws through a socially condoned monopoly on violence.
Ideally an informed and active public exercises it’s control over the entire process by electing the legislative group and the executive group. Unfortunately, the “ideal” and the “real” almost never match. In reality an apathetic, ill-informed, and distracted public are easily manipulated and small special interest groups infiltrate and hijack all three groups of government in order to influence the rules governing society in their favor.
So what does all this have to do with Ross Ulbricht and The Silk Road?
The Silk Road case is just the most recent high-profile example of the US government “cheating” at the laws of society in order to get the results they want. There has been a lot of discussion by the security community on the FBI’s explanation of how it legally identified the server used to host The Silk Road. The consensus seems to be that the FBI is lying and the method they purportedly used is not feasible.
There are two very important concepts you must be aware of:
Fruit of the poisonous tree: a legal metaphor in the United States used to describe evidence that is obtained illegally.
Parallel construction: a corrupt practice whereby the police who are trying to convict a suspect can’t actually find anything to convict them with, so they obtain illegally-gathered evidence, and then use this illegally-obtained evidence to retroactively fabricate plausible “evidence” that they can show in court; thus allowing the police to avoid being charged with crimes themselves while achieving their goal of a conviction.
Russ Tice was an NSA whistle-blower in 2005 who came forward and revealed his role in such parallel construction schemes run by the US government.
“Part of my job at NSA was to develop technical cover stories to hide the true nature of NSA’s involvement in intelligence and DoD operations. In terms of information that NSA collects illegally and unconstitutionally then provides to other agencies like the FBI and DEA, NSA also provides the other agencies with orders not to implicate NSA with the information and provides technical cover stories (parallel constructions) to be used in case they get called on the carpet in a court case.”
The government is cheating. It is breaking the rules that govern fair play. It can do this because this behavior has become normalized in our perverse and absurd world. It’s not surprising or shocking to anyone anymore.
Somewhere between the revolutions of the Age of Enlightenment and now people have sunk back into accepting despotism and tyranny. After it was made public that many western governments spy on just about every aspect of their citizens’ lives the reaction has been more or less “Well that’s just what governments do.”
Ross Ulbricht getting railroaded by illegally obtained evidence collected by the global surveillance state is easy for some people to accept because of their simple minded “Drugs are bad” mentality. The real issue here is that the government can (and does) use the same techniques against political adversaries in an attempt to crush dissent.
If the government doesn’t abide by its own laws then how can you have stability and security? How can you have rights if those rights are not treated as absolutes? You are at the mercy of a capricious deity from which there is no defense.
The men and women of the Age of Enlightenment rebelled against centuries of this tyranny with sword and gun. They established themselves as individuals free from the whims of mercurial rulers and set forth absolute rights by which they could be secure.
We’re sliding backwards, and this time the forces in control are taking measures to ensure armed mobs of citizens can’t overthrow them again. The worst part is that it is all “normal;” like when the government uses an illegal spying apparatus to cheat and get the end results they want.