Month: June 2014

How Did This Man Get Put Out Of The Game?: Lessons On Privacy From The Silk Road

In a little town called Brooklyn NY. there is a man sitting, rotting in a jail after being apprehended on money laundering, drug conspiracy, computer hacking and murder for hire charges in San Francisco. It is not my place to judge this man.  I am a privacy advocate and it is my job to provide some insight for you to understand why a person alleged to have built a billion dollar business is now surrounded by grey walls and facing life in prison.  Further, the crimes are not my concern.  But the way he was tracked down….that’s my specialty. 


The man’s name is Ross Ulbricht but you may know him by the screen name “Dread Pirate Roberts”, creator of the Silk Road web site.  For those who don’t know, the Silk Road is a site where just about anything, and I mean anything can be bought.  It’s like going to Mexico or the hood where you could buy any good or service if you bump into the right shady character with that specialty, but without the danger of going to a third world country or the ghetto.  You can sit behind your own computer and privately order the vice or your choosing safely.  What could ever go wrong with that?  If you don’t grasp my attempt at humor, let me just tell you that things went very wrong here.  
A very detailed breakdown of the whole story can be found under the youtube account of “Wes Spencer” and is called The Silk Road: The rise and Fall of The Worlds largest online Black Market. The Silk Road: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Online Black Market
Keep in mind that when you watch this video this is what is alleged to have happened and I’m sure a variation of stories will come out in court.  For all I know the story is complete crap and the accused didn’t do all that he is accused of.  In fact I find it odd that a man who had allegedly earned $80 million in profit over the past 2 years would have to get a public defender for a case that could land him in prison for the rest of his life.  Some may say he’s being sneaky like a fox and is just putting on airs about being broke as part of his defense.  Here’s my response to that:  He is in jail in Brooklyn NY. where mob bosses go to trial.  If he did these things he should take some of that $80 million and get one of those mob lawyers to handle it.  Like I said.  This is not my fight.  
What I want to give you the reader is what got him caught.  The main thing was that Dread Pirate Roberts (fictitious name) sometimes gave out the address of Ross Ulbricht (real person) when seeking computer assistance.  This itself was a colossal mistake.  When a person trying to maintain privacy mixes or interlaces identifiable information with information that is supposed to be private then the whole mission is blown.  In cyber privacy there is no such thing as a little contamination.
The second thing that allegedly happened to Mr. Ulbricht is the department of Homeland Security intercepted a package of 9 fake id’s with Mr. Ulbricht’s photo on them.  The address on the package lead authorities to an address where Ulbricht was renting. Faking an official identity is one thing I advise strongly against but the point I intend to drive home here is what the bible calls birth pangs, the beginning of sorrow.  When you begin to see great earthquakes and natural disasters it is a sign the end is near and Jesus will come like a thief in the night.  When you start to receive trouble in your line of work you should consider it the same way you would consider the thunder in the distance before a rainstorm or the rumble on the ground you feel before a freight train blasts through.  When Mr. Albricht  realized his alleged shipment of ID’s didn’t come through he should have taken it as a sign that his world was coming to an end and it wouldn’t be Jesus coming like a thief in the night.  It would be a dynamic entry from a swat team.    In fact Albricht was seized at a library, but my point should be taken.  When your experiencing the “birth pangs” you should have the discernment to see that a change is coming soon and it is time to straighten up and fly right.  

The third thing I believed failed Ross Ulbricht was actually the network itself.  The Silk Road and TOR and Bitcoin are all private and very secretive but it must be understood that one little mistake will contaminate your operation.  I believe The Dread Pirate Roberts believed his armor was impenetrable.  A mistake that any of us can make.  My advice here: Build good fences, continue to improve them and remember to walk them everyday to check for breaches.  If you find a breach it is time to do a big clean up.

At this time I want to say that I value the privacy and freedom the Silk Road offers but I can’t advise anyone to go on it.  I also will never condone the drug dealing.  As a drug dealer you contribute to the destruction of your customers life and assist in the destruction of families.  Some drug dealers have told me that the addict does the damage to themselves, but I disagree.  A drug dealer is a spoke in the wheel of depravity and destruction.  If you are part of vicariously hurting people in any part of your business, I suggest you find a new line of work.  I also want to remind you that the charges against Ross Ulbricht are only allegations at this time and he has not been convicted as of this writing.   

Never Underestimate Your Adversary

I have in the past discussed communicating in codes and that is not the main point of this writing but I want to remind you that it is an important component to your security and privacy.  There are many complicated systems available on the market that profess to protect your data and encrypt your data.  I believe many of them do but to what degree?
I recall a radio interview I once heard with John Clark (Attorney for privacy expert JJ Luna) in which Clark advised the authorities were looking for Mr. Luna one time and certain law enforcement officers showed up at Mr. Clark’s unregistered apartment that nobody should have known about.  The incident involved a client Clark had rejected over a national security issue which leads me to believe that as long as you steer clear of espionage and treason you will probably be safe taking mediocre steps to protect privacy but then again a criminal with the technology these law enforcement officers had would use it for all sorts of evil.  
The enemy is out there and they are out to take advantage of any weakness you have.  Even a pencil neck geek who never sets foot in any type of physical arena can make a lot of money off of you.  Every year BILLIONS of dollars are made by just stealing personal information.  (By the way, I don’t steal but I could be classified as a pencil neck geek).
If nothing else I recommend you take the step of buying some encryption for your phone and computer.  If you want to be smart and creative then create your own encryption.  I am currently working on a form of communication that everyone can adapt which will be very difficult to break.  No code is impossible to break because if a man makes it a man can break it. 
Keep in mind that your brain is really the last frontier of privacy.  Many spies will tell you “2 people can keep a secret if one of them is 6 feet under” and unfortunately this proves true more times than not.  The only real way to keep a secret anymore is to keep it inside your brain.  In my opinion that just takes all the fun out of life, so what do you do when you need to tell something to your inner circle without being spied upon?   Let me give you a couple of tips.  When you need to have a board meeting the last place you want to be is a board room.  These places are known to be very dangerous for the individual who want to keep things private.  
If you don’t want yourself specifically heard saying something you should take one person for a ride and stop at a random place down a country road then get out and walk.  Then I would use the trick the mobsters used in the movie “Casino” when the lip readers were watching them.  Cover your mouth with your had while you talk.  If you are filmed at a distance it could be later analyzed by lip readers.  Then have that one individual relay the message to all the other board members.
If you need to communicate information to several people you may want to take them all on a drive or motorcycle ride to the countryside.  Pick a random spot to get out and talk to them.  After a few minutes pass interrupt the meeting and move to another spot a few miles down the road.  Have all involved in the conversation cover their mouth while speaking.  
If you have security concerns with the individuals involved then there is only one way to handle it.  You will need to get in a hot tub with no clothes on with the other person.  I have heard of people who have built a bubble at the bottom of a pool in which two parties could swim down to and then talk under water but that is just not convenient unless you know where one of those is.  The hot tub is about as good as it gets if you are alone with the other person.  You both get in the water and it is obvious neither of you is wearing a recording device and the bubbles will make a sort of sound to drown out the conversation to any onlookers.
The main thing you need to file away in your memory is NEVER UNDERESTIMATE YOUR ADVERSARY!!