Silk Road and the gentrification of cybercrime

Crime, today, is less about busting kneecaps and more about phishing scams and email viruses.


Nicholas White

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 6, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 7:06 pm CDT

Crime, I think, used to be generally considered “unskilled labor.” Not so anymore. Crime, today, is less about busting kneecaps and more about phishing scams and email viruses.

Most famous in recent months, of course, is the case of Dread Pirate Roberts, who founded and ran Silk Road, the Internet’s largest and most successful black market—until the feds took it down last year.

Ross William Ulbricht is the 20-something accused of being Roberts, one of the world’s most notorious criminal masterminds, but in 2010, he was a physics student at the University of Texas at Dallas. He saw his creation, Silk Road, as a kind of adolescent social cause to defeat the “systemic use of force.” He also made about $80 million in a couple years and ordered several contract murders. While masterminding the Silk Road, he hosted a book club and now is a yoga teacher in prison. It’s hard to imagine Bugsy Segal downward dogging after a long day collecting protection money.

Steven Sadler was known as Nod on the Silk Road, and he was its most prominent heroin dealer—as well as an informant against Roberts. Immediately prior, he was an IT professional in his late 30s. He was stable, successful—and bored. So one day, like you do, he decided to try dealing drugs. Before the Internet, no middle-aged, middle-class American turned to drug dealing to relieve the ennui. After the Internet, setting up a black tar supply chain is apparently the equivalent of getting your real estate license.

The Internet has disrupted organized crime at its highest levels, the sale of illegal narcotics being one of the largest industries in the world. (I read somewhere it was second only to energy.) They used to say that a kid in his garage could put Bill Gates out of business, but now, that same kid can take on the Zetas.

Today, one of the biggest trends in law enforcement is the shift from offline to online crime. The feds know that’s where the action is, and they’re recruiting programmers out of school as fast as the mafia and the cartels can kidnap them.

But crime is being equally disrupted at the lowest levels.

The enterprising petty thief, of course, no longer has to wander the streets and parks looking for someone to mug while complaining that people don’t carry much cash anymore. Now, you can simply order up the perfect mugging victim, at the location of your choice and laden with highly fence-able items valued in the tens and hundreds of thousands. As a recent Craigslist heist proved, you can even do all that from your prison cell.

But to do it, you have to know your way around a computer. If we wanted to be disgustingly hipster about it, we’d complain about the gentrification of crime.

Snark aside, the story of online crime is the story of the whole Internet. On the one hand, it empowers people—random, “average” people, and more of them than ever before. The fact that Sadler could remake himself as a heroin dealer online at nearly 40 is part of the same phenomenon that has made major sports celebrities out of video game nerds.

At the same time, just as a kid with no computer skills is now shut out even of dealing drugs or mugging, any kid that doesn’t grow up with a computer (with broadband) in the living room is shut out of the Internet—and therefore opportunity (legit or otherwise) in general.

There is still hope, however. As one of our own editors’ parents show, it is never too late to jump into the Internet and break down any barrier (even the App Store’s decency rules). 

Illustration by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Feb 6, 2014, 4:07 pm CST