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Silk Road prosecutors attack its ‘no harm’ philosophy

Camels in Desert

imke.stahlmann/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

The defense’s case begins next week.

Prosecutors in the case against Ross Ulbricht, accused of being the mastermind behind the Silk Road online drug black market, spent Thursday attacking Silk Road’s famous “don’t do anything to hurt someone else” philosophy by showcasing sides of the anonymous market they believe did direct harm to victims.

Since its early 2011 launch, Silk Road was supported by a political ideology founded in a few basic rules. In the essay “A word from Dread Pirate Roberts,” the leader of the website, often known as DPR, laid out those foundations:

“Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated, mind your own business, and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else,” DPR wrote.

The market explicitly forbid stolen goods and stolen personal information, among other items, in an effort to live up to their own credo.

However, browsing through the market during its nearly three years of existence showed it was easy to buy tools designed to steal personal information and other goods.

Hacking tools, such as remote access tools, keyloggers, bruteforcers, botnets, password stealers, and more—marketed expressly by their ability to harm others were sold in the “digital goods” section of the site, a section that was much smaller than the drug section but still offered hundreds of products for sale at any given moment.

FBI special agent Vincent Dagastino showed the jury a video demonstration of a hacking tool ordered from one of the biggest such vendors on Silk Road, sniffsniff. Dagastino purchased Syslogger, a keylogger that attacked a victim’s computer and sent information back to its master via email. Dagastino showed off password stealing, screenlogging, anti-virus blocking, and other functions from Syslogger.

Throughout the rest of the day, the government highlighted hacks against Android phones and sensitive email accounts among other targets.

The prosecutors are almost done wrapping up their case, leading the way to the defense opening up their own case on about Monday. As such, Ulbricht and lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel have not had a chance to lay out the politics and philosophy behind Silk Road. Preparing for the inevitable, prosecutors are working to preemptively undermine that aspect of Dratel’s case.

Prosecutors also focused on the fraud section of Silk Road, where anonymous vendors sold fake IDs, passports, and Social Security cards that included some unaware person’s real personal information. This, too, ran contrary to DPR’s tenets.

“We hold our members to the highest standards of personal conduct,” DPR’s message read, “and [we] work tirelessly to prevent, root out, and stop any scammers that may try to prey upon others.”

In addition, the government is making the case that Silk Road’s “no harm” credo doesn’t even extend to their drug section, the center of the site.

On Wednesday and Thursday, 40-year-old Michael Duch testified. A Silk Road heroin dealer, Duch claimed that Silk Road caused him to relapse and become a major drug dealer for the first time in order to feed his own addiction.

Duch’s testimony was the most heated of the trial so far, by a wide margin. Defense attorney Dratel questioned Duch about a 2008 arrest for possession with intent to distribute—Duch ended up being convicted on a lesser charge—all of which, in Dratel’s eyes, conflicts with Duch’s story that he never dealt drugs before.

Dratel repeatedly interrupted and raised his voice to the point of yelling at Duch in an effort to get him to admit his story had problems. No such admission was forthcoming. Duch, with a noticeably quieter voice, claimed the amount of heroin he had on his person during the 2008 arrest—35 small bags of the drug—was about how much he consumed in a single day at the time.

Dratel vehemently disagreed. After pointing out that Duch was testifying in a deal made with prosecutors, he dove into Duch’s decades-long record of arrests and drug use, making the case that it wasn’t Silk Road that was to blame, it was Duch himself.

The trial is set to resume on Friday. The defense will begin making their case on Monday.

Photo via imke.stahlmann/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.