Rise and Fall of the Silk Road Marketplace

Here’s a rundown of how Silk Road operated prior to the federal government intervening, so you can see how it was possible to sell drugs and firearms online for more than two years.

The closure of Silk Road, a black market bazaar that dealt in anything and everything illegal, from drugs and guns to private information and malware, is one of the bigger tech stories this week.

Can you really buy heroin on the Web as easily as you might buy the newest best-seller from Amazon? Probably not, but as the FBI noted in its complaint, it wasn’t exactly rocket science, thanks to Tor and a few bitcoins. Here is a summary of how Silk Road operated before the authorities intervened.

FBI Special Agent Christopher Tarbell claims that the FBI made over 100 undercover purchases from Silk Road during the course of its investigation. But entering your credit card number online is not as simple as logging in. The Tor network is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

What went wrong with Silk Road?

According to Tor, Ulbricht “made mistakes in operational security” and was apprehended by “actual detective work” as opposed to taking advantage of Tor’s flaws. In fact, a post online that was connected to a Gmail account helped the FBI find him in part.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also pleaded with people not to place the blame on technology. According to EFF activist Parker Higgins, “the public wouldn’t tolerate a campaign to disparage the car because it can be used as a getaway car for bank robbers; we must apply the same critical thinking to essential privacy-preserving technology.”.

Accessing the Silk Road

When Tor was enabled, the Silk Road URL took new users to a black screen with a sign-up form and a request for a username and password. A username, password, and country of origin were all that were needed to sign up for Silk Road. Agent Tarbell noted that no additional information was required and that the user’s country-location information was not subject to any kind of verification.

Silk Road website
Silk Road website

The Site’s navigation.

Once inside, Silk Road resembled a nefarious version of Amazon.Com. You could browse images of the available stock or shop by category. Buyers and sellers could communicate privately through a messaging system, while more open discussions could be had in community forums. While a customer service section probably offered assistance when that batch of cocaine was a little late, a wiki contained frequently asked questions. Meanwhile, the product listings featured headings, the contact details of the seller, feedback from previous clients, and the well-known “add to cart” button.


There is no American Express acceptance on Silk Road. Instead, it makes use of bitcoin, a virtual currency (for more information, see PCMag’s guide to bitcoin). While the Blockchain, a publicly accessible ledger that records bitcoin transactions, “only reflects the movement of funds between anonymous bitcoin addresses and therefore cannot by itself be used to determine the identities of the persons involved in the transactions,” Tarbell wrote, it “cannot be used to identify the identities of the persons involved in the transactions.”. “It is only possible to meaningfully trace funds through the system if one is aware of the identities linked to each bitcoin address involved in a group of transactions. “.

Each user on Silk Road back when it was operational required a bitcoin address, which they kept in wallets run on Silk Road-owned servers. As soon as money was put into a bitcoin wallet, it could be spent on whatever your criminal heart desired. Then the sellers transferred their bitcoins to the exchange, which took a commission of between 8 and 15 percent. But as Tarbell pointed out, to further obfuscate bitcoin transactions, Silk Road also employed a “tumbler.”. This procedure “sends all payments through a complicated, semi-random series of dummy transactions dot. Making it nearly impossible to link your payment with any coins leaving the site,” the FBI claimed. Despite the EFF’s criticism of that claim, Tarbell claimed that in his experience, tumblers are typically only used “to assist with the laundering of criminal proceeds.”. However, it is extremely risky to claim that only drug dealers or money launderers are interested in anonymous currency, whether it be Bitcoin or regular cash, according to EFF.