Thursday, October 3, 2013
The Takedown of a Real Life "Walter White" - Ross William Ulbricht
Ross William Ulbricht, the internet drug kingpin behind the $1.2 b hidden criminal website 'Silk Road' , would make the fictional meth lord Walter White drool with envy. Like the fictional White, Ulbricht didn't know when to quit, but unlike White, he didn't go out with any blaze of redeeming glory or saving grace.
FBI agents arrested Ulbricht - the notorious mastermind behind 'Silk Road' - on Tuesday, in a San Francisco public library, in the science fiction section, if you can believe it . Before being shut down Wednesday, Ulbricht's site functioned as an online contraband market place complete with shopping carts, product descriptions for everything from illegal drugs (heroine, coke, meth, LSD, ecstasy) to guns to fake licenses and hacking services.
The Silk Road - like Walter White's assorted front companies (i.e. the car wash run by Skyler) was set up to be completely anonymous. Users - both buyers and sellers- could make their nefarious transactions in total secrecy away from the eyes of law enforcement - and even NSA' s prying PRISM and XKeyscore eyes.
'Silk Road' used a cyber currency called "bit coins" which, because they were independent of financial institutions, made them hard to trace. Ulbricht also designed his site outside the regular internet, setting it up on the TOR network- a service that allows users to use the web anonymously. Anything sent through this alternative internet was completely encrypted which is why it took 2 years for federal agents to crack the sites. Ulbricht also apparently tried to put a hit on one Silk Road user black mailing him.
In August, FORBES got Ulbricht, aka "Dread Pirate Roberts" in an exclusive interview via a completely anonymous online chat after he refused to meet in person. Back then he wouldn’t reveal his full name or even nationality, stating that “the highest levels of government are hunting me.”
Like Walt, Ulbricht was no dummy. In fact, his background parallels the fictional Walter White's in terms of higher education. He attended the University of Texas at Dallas, where relatives say he was on full scholarship and studied physics. From there, he went on to be a graduate research assistant at Penn State University, earning his Master’s Degree in Materials Science and Engineering with a thesis entitled “Growth of EuO Thin Films By Molecular Beam Epitaxy.”
According to FORBES, after leaving Penn State in 2010, Ulbricht mentioned on his LinkedIn page that his “goals have shifted” and that he was moving away from his physics education and toward the study and use of economic theory to “abolish the use of coercion and aggression against mankind.”
Such flighty aspirations coming from a recent post graduate should always send up red flags. His libertarian fascination (with Ron Paul) also contributed to his 'above the law' mindset and perhaps his downfall. But let's make no mistake that "Dread Pirate Roberts" was no Heisenberg. His supremo error was using his real name via his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org in seeking tech help for problems with his site. This is something Walt never would have done.
In addition, the downfalls of the fictional and real life drug lords are distinct. While Walt was brought down by his greed, as I noted in the last blog, Ulbricht's actual downfall was his hubris. This also likely contributed to the security blind spot that made him feel so unaware, or confident, that he could use his real name in getting tech help.
In an interview with technology news site, The Verge, close friend René Pinnell, who lived with Ulbricht in San Francisco, was in disbelief that his roommate could have been the infamous drug kingpin named after a masked protagonist from fantasy film, The Princess Bride. He said he thought Ulbricht was trading the anonymous currency Bitcoin to make a living.
“I don’t know how they messed it up and I don’t know how they got Ross wrapped into this, but I’m sure it’s not him,” Pinnell said.
But one thing we do know, is that hubris and greed are more than sufficient to sink any wannabe criminal drug lord seeking to emulate Walter White.