Ross Ulbricht, founder of hidden online marketplace Silk Road, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ulbricht was convicted in February of seven separate charges, but two were dropped by prosecutors shortly before sentencing.
The final judgement on the remaining five charges resulted in jail time for each, with sentences of 5, 15 and 20 years plus two life terms to be served concurrently.
On top of the custodial sentences, financial penalties of over $180,000 were imposed, with the funds likely to be recouped from Bitcoin retrieved from Ulbricht’s laptop and servers powering Silk Road, all seized by the FBI at the climax of a lengthy investigation which began in early 2012.
Ulbricht, a physics and engineering graduate from Austin, Texas, set up Silk Road in early 2011, the idea based in part on libertarian principles of freedom from government interference.
Using the Tor network to hide its activities and Bitcoin to mask the identities of those trading on the site, it aimed to provide a free and anonymous trading post for anyone wishing to conduct business away from the prying eyes of governments and law enforcement.
The initial product was a batch of magic mushrooms grown by Ulbricht himself, but the site rapidly took off and became the sales vector of choice for drug dealers around the world, with at times up to 13,000 separate drug listings categorised by type.
It wasn’t all drugs of course, with other illegal materials and services, such as stolen online login details and bespoke hacking, sold through the site.
Forgeries including identity documents, passports and even money-off coupons were also big sellers.
Ulbricht is thought to have reaped commissions of up to $13 million from his time running the site, which eventually became a complex operation with several full-time admins and other helpers involved, all under the stewardship of “Dread Pirate Roberts”, the nickname used by Ulbricht throughout the Silk Road endeavour.
Ulbricht’s lack of programming knowhow and inexperience with OpSec meant he left numerous trails which law enforcement were later able to pick up and follow, but the main factor in the collapse of Silk Road was undoubtedly the placement of legions of undercover agents among Silk Road’s userbase.
In its report on the sentencing, the FBI cites “more than 60 individual undercover purchases of controlled substances”.
According to Wired’s in-depth study of Silk Road’s rise and fall, one agent posed as a senior drug cartel operative, becoming close to Ulbricht in his Dread Pirate Roberts guise and eventually being asked to carry out a series of assassinations, one of which was faked to provide Ulbricht with proof the hit had been carried out while the “victim” became a police informer.
Six separate murder-for-hire incidents have been levelled against Ulbricht, and although none were included in the final charge-sheet, it’s thought the added weight of violence may have had an impact on the decision to levy a heavy punishment.
Also highly significant in the sentencing was the appearance in court of family members of several people thought to have died as a result of drugs purchased on Silk Road, at least six of whom are noted in the case reports.
Ulbricht’s initial defence – that he had long since sold on his stake in the project and had been framed by its subsequent operators – failed to convince at trial, and at sentencing his insistence that he had learned lessons and become aware of the wrong he had done didn’t cut much ice either.
The presiding judge stressed the importance of the case as a message to online criminals everywhere:
There must be no doubt that you cannot run a massive criminal enterprise and because it occurred over the internet minimize the crime committed on that basis.
Although there will doubtless be appeals, there’s little chance Ulbricht will escape spending most of the rest of his life behind bars.
The case will also have wider impact on the online world as a whole, with investigations into Silk Road and other similar hidden services leading law enforcement and other researchers to find numerous weaknesses and potential soft spots in systems such as Tor.
Silk Road’s short-lived success has also strengthened the demands of various governments and agencies to weaken online encryption and allow greater supervision and monitoring of everyone’s online activities.
Privacy and anonymity are vital for many people, for many reasons, and those who make use of shared tools and networks for criminal purposes jeopardise these vital systems for everyone.
15 comments on “Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht gets life without parole”
“Ulbricht, a physics and engineering graduate…” Good decision, Ross. What a monumental waste of everyone’s time, money, energy and talent, not to mention his facilitation of several overdoses. Can you imagine how things would be if he had applied himself to doing something useful instead of Silk Road? I think he would have been slightly better off than he is now; life in prison without parole.
Yep, promoting his political beliefs of libertarianism is stupid. Instead he should have joined Peta and fire-bombed a few research labs instead of creating a trade network. Then he’d have gotten less time, and chicks dig nutjob animal lovers.
Your advice apply for everyone specially the judge.
Ridiculous. Life in prison without parole? Rapists and murderers get less time than that! He is NOT responsible for all the overdoses and addictions. This world lacks any shred of personal accountability. Sure, he deserves jail time for being in that business, but certainly not life.
hmm, I think you may have missed the part about murder for hire.
well afaik that charge was called shortly before his conviction
I think you missed the part that the murder for hire wasn’t used in the final trial, it was all bullshit the government couldn’t prove but was enough to smear his name. Read the actual facts of the case.
If you watched the documentary about his case “Deep Web”, his laptop was taken away by the govt. so govt. hackers could have easily set him up since there had to be something that serious to give him life in prison because they wanted to punish him really bad and being the admin for the site wasn’t going to be enough. He plead non guilty… they will obviously do their best to keep in in prison.. he did not cooperate. They probably tortured him so he would give away his bitcoin keys so they could search all of it, which violates amendment 4… lets see if the govt. gets punished for violating rights… I didnt think so. Govt. just couldnt wait to get their hands on that massive cryptocurrency Ross had!!
And you may have missed the part where they clearly state the charges were dropped
Agree this is an insane sentence, but thats how it works – you do something any kind of bad and you plead no it wasnt me, they come down on you crazy heavy, thats why you get lots of people admitting to stuff they never did, because denying means 50000 years in jail. Mental country, but clearly works somehow soemtimes
yet not one wall street banker has done a perp walk!
yet not one ‘advanced interrogation’ policy implementor has done a perp walk!
yet not one bush administration war criminal has done a perp walk!
The government’s case against Mr. Ulbricht and Silk Road is frightening on so many levels. Servers and laptops being seized and searched with open, non-specific warrants amounts to a prosecutorial fishing expedition for criminal charges. The precedent being set via case law in this ruling clearly demonstrates the government’s unwillingness to allow a free an anonymous existence on the internet. Even more troubling is the unwillingness to change the battle tactics, which have proved ineffective for decades, in the war on drugs. As long as the citizens of one of the wealthiest countries in the world maintain a healthy appetite for drug use, poverty stricken areas of the world will continue to supply this demand. The only way to win this figurative war is in supressing demand. The tremendous amount of funding and treatment spent on incarcerating drug suppliers needs to be redirected to treatment for addicts.Limiting demand is the only way to win. Otherwise, America will continue to be the land of incarceration and home of the drug addict…
I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the idea of these searches ans seizures and I worry about my privacy, that some government official might go through my hard drive and find I have a fetish of garter belts or something. But then I found out that a (much larger) portion of this world (than I want to believe) have festishes far more frightening than lingere and that people are buying lives- be it through murder-for-hires or possible snuff vids, and thats when I realized this is for the best. People are too f’d up to be given such freedom apparently. I don’t want Orwell’s 1984 (though it already seems to exist) but there is some really crazy stuff going on. Drug sales don’t worry me because you know 90% of those people are taking the money and not sending any drugs, so it teaches these kids a valuable lesson, but guns and personal info and mercenaries… these are issues that require intervention.
Who has he supposed to have wanted killed? If that’s true, it’s horrible, but others that are found guilty of that specific type of crime, don’t get life.
No, this is more about subverting the US government. Although deplorable, this had very little to do with protecting citizens and on a grand scale, had very affect on hard working, tax paying, citizens.
Like the poster above mentioned, how do these legal pirates of wall street still walk free? These crooks committed crimes that affected the ENTIRE COUNTRY, yet they walk free still today…
Why don’t just get it over with and change our money to read “Incorporated We Trust”…
People choose to use drugs he didn’t kill them they killed themselves stop being as naive as family members of drug users.Money needs to be directed to treatment of drug addiction and the causes of such misery,how many generations have to listen to politician’s ‘war on drugs ‘nonsense.