Life became stranger than fiction when federal authorities arrested the notorious hacker Ross Ulbricht (aka 'Dread Pirate Roberts') for crimes mirroring the fictional character of Walter White in the award-winning TV drama, "Breaking Bad." Drug trafficking, money-laundering and cold-blooded murder transformed a mild-mannered physics student into an underworld kingpin, just as it had for a chemistry teacher in that five-season AMC thriller.
Taking a Deep Dive
As the founder of 'Silk Road,' a digital black market, Ulbricht ran an online illicit emporium that sold drugs seamlessly -- like on eBay -- that is, if eBay sold hash, ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and any other illegal substance one was jonesing for.
Like something out of a cyberspace novel, Silk Road [named after the historical trade route that linked the East and West from China to Mediterranean Sea] existed in the Deep Web, the vast digital landscape of hidden sites that reside below the Surface or Public Web and are "unsearchable" by Google and the standard search engines.
Much of this portion of the Web is too dynamic to be indexed - that is, there's no library catalogs, classified ads and/or medical databases. In essence, it's a habitat for sites that don't want to found, because nothing that's done in this nether region is legal. From fake IDs, bogus passports, social security cards to hacking tools tutorials for robbing ATMs to guns for hire, Silk Road conjures up images of the Wild West meets Clockwork Orange.
Ross Ulbricht's multiple driver licenses for various states
What Devious Minds Could Possibly Create the Deep Web?
Ironically, in the mid-nineties, the federal government and scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Lab conceived of a way to surf the Net without being identified or followed. With federal funding,the software developed called TOR [or The Onion Router] was launched in 2002. Like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, TOR encrypts the locations and destinations one surfs so he or she can move around in this space effortlessly, without being detected. Seeing the obvious advantages, It didn't take long for the criminal element to access TOR for their own nefarious purposes.
David Kushner's Rolling Stone's expose notes that nearly 20 percent of drug consumers in the U.S. used narcotics bought on Silk Road after paying with Bitcoin, the digital currency with market value set by supply and demand [currently at $1,000 for one Bitcoin]. Then by facilitating over a million such transactions, Ulbricht's Silk Road produced more than $1.2 billion in revenues during its two-and-a-half-year run. With approximately $420 million in commissions, the Feds allege, it made Ross Ulbricht one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the dot-com age.
Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass GO. . .
Dissimilar to Walter White who basically died by his own hands, Ross Ulbricht was captured by the Feds in October, 2013 and in an indictment released on February 4 was initially charged with engaging in a narcotics, hacking and money-laudering conspiracy. Alleged murder charges [connecting Ulbricht to contracting hitman] are pending as Assistant U.S. Attorney Serrin Turner claims Ulbricht spent $730,000 of his earnings on hiring hitmen to kill six of his enemies [former allies who knew too much about Ulbricht's alleged dastardly deeds].
"While portraying himself as a champion of 'freedom' on the Silk Road website, opposed to the use of any kind of 'force' against others, he was in fact a quite ruthless criminal," as Turner put it, "one who, with seeming ease and lack of conscience, nonchalantly ordered murders for hire amidst fixing server bugs and answering customer-support tickets."
Miscast as Walter White?Eagle Scout Ulbricht
There are those that don't buy into the portrayal of Ulbricht as a corrupted youth who broke bad. By the accounts of friends and relatives, some talk reminisce about him being an Eagle Scout in his youth and other described him as soulful and sensitive idealist who wanted to better the world. Raising legal-defense funds through their website, Freeross.org, the family has hired Joshua Dratel, a high-powered lawyer whose defended Al Qaeda operatives and a Guantánamo Bay inmate.
If not Breaking Bad, What?
David Segal at the New York Times notes there are three possibilities for Ulbricht while he awaits trial in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York.
- One, that the government has, in fact, collared the wrong man.
- Two, that Mr. Ulbricht is a sociopath who concealed a dark side from everyone for years.
- Three, that Mr. Ulbricht is Dread Pirate Roberts — and that the two are not really that different.
Page out of a Familiar Playbook?
If the charges stick and murder is thrown into the mix, this 29-year old stands the chance of facing life imprisonment - explicit crimes that Mr. Dratel might not be able to counter in a court of law. Perhaps in retrospect, before being apprehended, Ulbricht might have thought about a covert witness protection program taken right out of Walter White's playbook-- and, organized by another criminal lawyer, super-familiar with covering the tracks of the guilty.