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Traveling the Silk Road: a measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace
Christin N.  WWW 2013 (Proceedings of the 22nd International World Wide Web Conference, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  May 13-17, 2013) 213-224. 2013. Type: Proceedings
Date Reviewed: Apr 15 2014

On October 1, 2013, US federal agencies (the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)) shut down Silk Road [1], a Tor hidden service that was an anonymous marketplace for merchandise, including drugs. Months earlier, Nicolas Christin of the Carnegie Mellon Information Networking Institute (INI)/CyLab presented original research approaching a scientific analysis of what was really going on at Silk Road and what, if anything, could be done to intervene.

If you are a privacy geek, then you have surely heard about onion routing (OR) (http://www.onion-router.net/), work from the Center for High Assurance Computer Systems (CHACS) of the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). Tor networks are third-generation OR systems used to ensure privacy and security on the Internet. Think about the network as comprising many participants that assist in random encrypted tunnel routing so that requests are no longer point to point, but a series of points that are opaque, unpredictable, and consequently much harder to discover and understand by observation. In practice, the random route is regenerated periodically to obscure pattern analysis.

Many people have heard of Silk Road, and intuitively most know it as a more organized black market, an Amazon.com of things most of us do not need, such as drugs (prescription and narcotics), guns (better used for crimes), and child pornography. Christin set forth to create a scientific assessment with a clever system of web crawlers that acted like a user of Tor and Silk Road. Instead of browsing, they were storing and processing the site pages to later analyze. He collected data over six months, from February 2012 through July 2012. This is a summary of his findings:

  • Most of the products are drugs;
  • The community is relatively international;
  • Sellers and sales volumes were increasing;
  • The marketplace experienced product churn (unstable product availability); and
  • Estimate money flow was $1.2 million per month.

While Christin explores potential intervention methods (such as reducing consumer demand through prevention campaigns), it is curious that anyone would want to see the problem solved. With the increasing sophistication of organizations (commercial and otherwise), the plummeting costs of performing what are historically impossible analytics [2], and financial incentives for encouraging and knowing who is doing what, the Internet has demonstrated that there is no privacy [3]. This is a fundamental problem and at the heart of Philip Zimmerman’s motivation for pretty good privacy (PGP) encryption [4] and the US Navy’s desire for better communications protection. You should not need to be military to desire privacy, and it does not imply that you are doing something wrong if you do. Tor enables another step in anonymity. In that pursuit, of course, people will use it to support unsavory activities. Real privacy has to protect everyone for it to protect anyone.

Reviewer:  Brian D. Goodman Review #: CR142175 (1407-0595)
1) Leinwand Leger, D. A behind-the-scenes look at the federal agents' digital detective work. USA Today, Oct. 22, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/21/fbi-cracks-silk-road/2984921/ (accessed April 11, 2014).
2) Driscoll, M. Building data start-ups: fast, big, and focused. May 25, 2011, http://www.slideshare.net/medriscoll/driscoll-strata-buildingdatastartups25may2011clean (accessed April 15, 2014) .
3) Sonne, P. Data-security expert Kaspersky: there is no more privacy. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 3, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324432404579053091175949708 (accessed April 11, 2014).
4) Zimmermann, P. Why I wrote PGP. https://www.philzimmermann.com/EN/essays/WhyIWrotePGP.html (accessed April 11, 2014).
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