The trial of Ross Ulbricht, alleged admin of The Silk Road (a Tor Network marketplace for the sale and trade of illegal goods), is expected to begin in New York today. The public nature of the trial could result in much discussion of the online investigation methods by law enforcement, as well as the nature of anonymity and privacy online.
“The prosecution’s case will need to cut through that anonymity to prove Ulbricht is indeed the masked mastermind of Silk Road,” writes Andy Greenberg for Wired. He adds that this trial could become “a case study in the vulnerabilities law enforcement uses to attack the Dark Web’s hidden contraband bazaars and identify the people who run them.”
The case study could also provide both cybercriminals and privacy advocates with information for evading detection. Law enforcement professionals already have difficulty tracking people online, especially if those people use certain encryption methods. It’s possible that a trial will illuminate law enforcement techniques for the benefit of the very criminals they hope to capture.
On the other hand, some activists see this trial as an expression of governmental control over the Internet. “If Ross is convicted, the Internet will become a place of fear, and we will be at the whim of state power, we will be held accountable for our free speech,” says anarchist activist Julia Tourianksi, in a video rallying supporters “The state is testing the waters. If we don’t give them a storm, we consent to our silencing.”
Online surveillance is a constant concern of privacy activists and advocates, and it is necessary to question the methods by which investigators gathers data. If the internet is “the 21st century crime scene,” as Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance has stated, then due process and 4th amendment protections should still apply.
All in all, this trial won’t directly stop illegal trades and sales on the Tor network or the Internet. A mere month after the Silk Road closed in the wake of Ulbricht’s arrest, a second version emerged. That has since been shut down by the FBI, and now there are marketplaces cropping up outside Tor that could be even hard to crack.
As with most high level trials, it seems that the participants have largely become figureheads, and what’s on trial is privacy, anonymity, and the practices of law enforcement. Perhaps the most important thing we will learn is how far law enforcement is prepared to go to track down criminals online, and if those techniques are within the bounds of the law.
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