Ross Ulbricht (born 1984) is a former darknet market operator most famous for creating and running the Silk Road market. He was jailed in 2013 on charges of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. 

In the world of the darknet, it seems that every activity has at least a shade of criminality to it. Indeed, one of the ways that the encrypted corners of the internet are most commonly used is as a platform for illegal dealings, including the buying and selling of recreational drugs and weapons.

The darknet has become a strange hideout for an odd combination of criminals, curious but innocent individuals, and politically oppressed people. Ulbricht, who used the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts" online, will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Here's his story. 

Key Takeaways

  • Ross Ulbricht, the "Dread Pirate Roberts" of the Internet, founded and operated darknet marketplace Silk Road in 2011 until it was shut down by the U.S. government in 2013.
  • The site was a criminal marketplace in which illegal goods, including drugs, and unlawful services, were bought and sold by the site's users, who paid using cryptocurrency; encryption protected user identities.
  • In 2013, the site was shut down and Ulbricht was arrested and indicted on charges of computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, money laundering and attempting to have six people killed.
  • The charge of attempting to have people murdered was ultimately dropped, and in 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of all other charges; he was sentenced to two life imprisonment terms to be served concurrently, with no chance of parole.
  • He remains in prison today, with his request for appeal denied by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; the Supreme Court denied his request to reconsider his conviction and life sentence.

Early Life and Career

Ulbricht grew up near Austin, Texas, studying physics at the University of Texas at Dallas and then Pennsylvania State University to pursue a master's program in materials science and engineering. During this time, Ulbricht developed a keen interest in libertarian views of economic theory. He became a supporter of the political philosopher Ludwig von Mises and aligned his views with prominent libertarian politicians.

In 2009, upon his graduation from Penn State, Ulbricht returned to Austin set on becoming an entrepreneur. His early attempts were unsuccessful, and he moved between a number of jobs. He tried his hand at day trading and even at developing video games, as well as founding a company to sell books online.

Silk Road Beginnings

It was during this time that Ulbricht first developed the idea of creating an online marketplace utilizing Tor encryption and bitcoin, which was still in its nascent stages at the time.

By adopting encryption and cryptocurrency, Ulbricht believed that his marketplace could provide anonymity and security for its participants, allowing them to avoid government scrutiny.

Tor passes user information through a vast network of encryption procedures, effectively disguising the identity and location of participants on the network, while bitcoin offers a decentralized and anonymous transactional platform. This early idea would eventually develop into the Silk Road marketplace.

Ross Ulbricht, Darknet Pirate

Ulbricht founded Silk Road in 2011, calling himself "Dread Pirate Roberts" online, in a nod to the hit 1987 movie The Princess Bride. He envisioned Silk Road as a "means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind," according to his LinkedIn page.

He also said he was "creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force."

Silk Road became popular over a very short span of time. When numerous media outlets picked up stories on the market in mid-2011, a significant amount of interest developed in the site and traffic increased exponentially. Of course, as the site became more widely known, authorities also made moves to identify Silk Road users and to shut down the site. Nonetheless, Silk Road remained a popular black market, focused on the sale of illegal drugs, through 2013.

Silk Road Implosion

In early 2013, an Australian drug dealer was the first individual to be convicted of crimes directly linked to the Silk Road. From this point, identification of users of Silk Road continued to develop, and eventually, the FBI determined that Ulbricht was the founder and owner of Silk Road. He was arrested on October 2, 2013, in a San Francisco library, and was later indicted on charges of computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, money laundering, and attempting to have six people killed. At the time of his arrest, Ulbricht's net worth topped $28 million.

Authorities alleged that Ulbricht had paid more than $700,000 to have the murders carried out, although no murders ultimately took place. In the process of shutting down Silk Road, the FBI seized 144,346 bitcoins from Ulbricht's laptop, eventually selling them in September 2017 for $48,238,116.

$28 million

Ross Ulbricht's net worth at the time of his arrest in October 2013.

Trial and Imprisonment

Ulbricht's trial began in January 2015 in Manhattan. Ultimately, charges of procuring murder were dropped, but Ulbricht was convicted of all other charges. The trial was a highly publicized and charged event, with the presiding judge receiving death threats from presumed Silk Road supporters.

Prior to his sentencing, Ulbricht stated via a letter to the judge that his actions were linked to his libertarian ideals and that "Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices." On May 29, 2015, Ulbricht was sentenced to two life imprisonment terms to be served concurrently without the possibility of parole.

Attempted Appeal

Ulbricht attempted to appeal, and in May 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied his attempt. Also in 2017, Ulbricht appealed to the Supreme Court, with attorneys arguing that his case involves unresolved constitutional questions regarding the Fourth Amendment and the digital age. But in June 2018, the court announced that it wouldn't reconsider Ulbricht's conviction or his life sentence. On October 10, 2019, Ulbricht filed a motion with the New York Southern District Court to vacate or set aside his sentence.

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