Yesterday I read a flurry of reports on a new web service called silk road. This is a “totally anonymous” website that looks like it has initially been set up to facilitate drug deals. Payments are made using Bitcoin, a “virtual” digital currency that allows “untraceable” transactions to be made using distributed Peer to Peer technology.
A quick Google search for Silk Road last night revealed nothing but changing search terms this morning I found it.The first result took me to the following post:
Silk Road is into it’s third week after launch and I am very pleased with the results. There are several sellers and buyers finding mutually agreeable prices, and as of today, 28 transactions have been made!
For those who don’t know, Silk Road is an anonymous online market.
Of course, it is in its infant stages and I have many ideas about where to go with it. But I am turning to you, the community, to give me your input and to have a say in what direction it takes.
What is missing? What works? What do you want to see created? What obstacles do you see for the future of Silk Road? What opportunities?
The general mood of this community is that we are up to something big, something that can really shake things up. Bitcoin and Tor are revolutionary and sites like Silk Road are just the beginning.
I don’t want to put anyone in a box with my ideas, so I will let you take it from here…
-Silk Road staff
This is a fairly astonishing post in itself. It was published on 1st March and has since then attracted 36 pages of responses and comments.You can see for yourselves.
The signature in the post leads to two sites: silkroadmarket dot org (I don’t particularly want to link to it) and a hidden service with a .onion link.
This first on is merely a placeholder with a challenge for you to look a little harder. The clue lies in the second link.
Clicking on it gets you nowhere but if you dig into the.onion address format you will find the Tor Project.
“Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.”
“The Tor Project wins the “Project of Social Benefit” award from the Free Software Foundation and GNU Project. We are honored to win this award and to be listed amongst the former winners.”
Tor uses a P2P client on your desktop to protect your anonymity. Silk Road is only accessible using Tor.
Now I’m a nice guy. I tend to not knowingly mix with the criminal fraternity and indeed I haven’t downloaded the Tor client, accessed the Silk Road marketplace or “bought” any bitcoins, though I’m not sure that taxation and control issues apart, the latter is any different to paying for virtual products on the likes of Facebook using real money.
This whole story reveals some interesting points.
Firstly there is a burgeoning internet underworld that most of us don’t see or in which we do not participate. No different to the real world there I guess.
Secondly the technology that has been developed to access this underworld has legal uses as well as illegal – journalism, activism, market research, private personal communications are a few named on the torproject website. Anything really where someone might want to do something but remain anonymous. So possession of a Tor client is not in itself a pointer towards any kind of guilt, though it might attract a finger of suspicion amongst some folk of a specific human nature.
Bringing P2P into the picture makes tracking and control hugely difficult for those whose job it is to bring criminals to book. Not necessarily impossible but not something that can be done at a flick of a switch.
The real point is that whilst buying drugs from Silk Road (or weapons, racehorses or any other potentially stolen goods etc) might not be your thing there is a very real possibility that this type of technology will become established as an everyday tool for everyday people.
It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how an anonymity client could go mass market.
For example I have been playing with Location based services. I periodically check in on Foursquare and am now proud to be able to say that I am mayor of 14 locations including Lincoln Cathedral, two pubs and the local rugby club (believe me they are compatible ). I also allow my location to be published on Google Latitude.
I don’t know where any of this is going but I am stringing along with it for now. There will however come a time where 4square needs to give me something back, something more than the “kudos” of being mayor of arbitrary locations (bring on the bling!). Otherwise it runs the risk of losing its attraction and being seen as intrusive.
Also yesterday I was using Google to search for a waterproof coat for one of my kids. Sometime later, as I was reading the Guardian article on Silk Road, an ad was pushed to my screen selling me a brand of waterproof clothing. I was uncomfortable with this. I realise that I can probably control this, delete cookies, private browsing etc but it is a faff and the whole thing brought Phorm to mind. It also makes you think hard about the practices of what by now are huge corporations such as Google.
So it isn’t hard to see how everyone might want to adopt technology such as Tor. It would likely be a single, fire and forget, installation. We would need to build up a degree of confidence in Tor itself but being an open source proposition with full transparency takes contributes a lot towards this. I can imagine subscribing to a fully managed serviced that does it all for me.
Government also needs to take note. Tracking a criminal may be doable, with huge amounts effort but tracking millions of people allegedly infringing copyright for example would just not be viable. This technology would also render efforts to filter pornography (or any other content considered to be out of favour by the government of the day) totally useless.
And there is no way we could stop it. It may be that privacy services such as Tor become the norm though there are clearly huge issues that society will have to get to grips with. For example it is difficult to imagine the whole economy moving to a bitcoin model. Whatever happens it seems that technology relating to the internet is developing far faster than legislators can think. Interesting eh?
PS I don’t know whether you can buy a racehorse at silkroad. I haven’t looked myself and I wouldn’t advise getting involved.