EFF: Technology Is Not To Blame In Silk Road Takedown

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This article, written by Parker Higgins, was originally published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Oct. 3.

The man alleged to be “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the founder and operator of the Silk Road—an online marketplace where bitcoins were traded for a range of goods and services, including drugs—was arrested by the FBI in San Francisco yesterday. The criminal complaint, released today, provides many details about how the site and its users relied on widespread anonymity technology, including Tor and Bitcoin.

The increased attention on this technology is a good reminder about how important it is not to blame these tools for the actions of a small portion of their users. The public wouldn’t tolerate a campaign to malign the car because of its utility as a getaway vehicle for bank robbers; we must apply the same critical thinking to essential privacy-preserving technology.

In certain parts of the complaint, even the federal agent behind the investigation and the Justice Department attorney in charge of the case acknowledge this. In describing how Tor was required to access the Silk Road (the site was configured as a Tor hidden service), they state that “Tor has known legitimate uses”. Similarly, “Bitcoins are not illegal in and of themselves and have known legitimate uses.”

Elsewhere the complaint goes astray. For example, it asserts that the suspect’s efforts to “‘hide the identities of those that run Silk Road’ reflect his awareness of the illegal nature of the Silk Road enterprise.” Of course, that explanation overlooks the countless lawful reasons why a person would want to engage in anonymous speech—and in the process hide the identities of those behind the technical infrastructure—that don’t involve breaking the law.

Similarly, the complaint’s description of the bitcoin “tumbler” that the Silk Road employed to obscure the parties involved in each transaction is alarmingly limited. According to the complaint, “the only function served by such ‘tumblers’ is to assist with the laundering of criminal proceeds.” Really, the purpose of a tumbler is to attempt to make a bitcoin transaction as anonymous and private as cash. Certainly one can take issue with Silk Road’s use of the technology in particular. It’s incredibly dangerous, though, to say that anonymous currency—whether bitcoins or traditional cash—is only of interest to drug dealers or money launderers.

It’s essential that the use of encryption, anonymization techniques, and other privacy practices is not deemed a suspicious activity. Rather, it must be recognized as an essential element for practicing freedom of speech in a digital environment.

In some ways, the complaint provides encouragement to those who depend on this technology to engage in speech privately and anonymously. After all, it was human error, and the chance discovery of nine fake ID cards in a routine package inspection at the border, that led to the final round of investigation. This summer’s revelations about the NSA’s subverting certain cryptographic technologies have definitely heightened fears in the security community. Although there are still some unanswered questions about the investigation, it’s a small relief that, for now, those fears weren’t confirmed by the criminal complaint.

The point remains, however, that relegating these technologies by associating them only with their criminal use threatens to undermine their ability to enable important, lawful speech.

Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed that sort of demonization of technology before. We’ve seen it in attempts to target peer-to-peer protocols because they can be used for copyright infringement; in the outrageous stacking of penalties that can result in decades of possible prison time for violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; in the original “Crypto Wars” of the 1990s and their reprise today; and in many other places besides.

The allegations against the Silk Road are serious, and may get even more so as the case progresses to formal charges and a trial. But if the government puts undue weight on the suspect’s use of technology, instead of the actual crimes of which he is accused, the public will be worse off for it.

Personal Liberty

Electronic Frontier Foundation

From the Internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense. EFF broke new ground when it was founded in 1990—well before the Internet was on most people's radar—and continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights. https://www.eff.org/

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  • Blank Reg

    The Silk Road is dead…long live the Silk Road….

  • paendragon

    The FBI is as stupid as Richard Warman, who is trying to assert that website owners are responsible for the comments posted by users! If I post the words of Shakespeare on your site, does that make you the copyright holder of all of The Bard’s works? And if you post threats, do I have the right to remove them (destroy evidence of your potential crimes)? And if I don’t have any right nor responsibility to the things others post, how do you think you’ll convict me for it?! MORONS!

  • Rick H.

    If we are going to have our officials talk about cutting the size of Gov. and deregulating then it has got to include deregulating everything.If someone wants to by and use drugs,as long as they do not hurt anyone besides their selves LET THEM!If they ar going to allow ,as Bush did,foriegners come in and take labor jobs,they need to let them come in and take Medical,lawyer,and financial jobs as well.A lot of the problem with the medical care is cost due to the fact that everything is regulated to the point where even regular drug refills that people get every month for YEARS requires a Doctor appointment and it shouldn’t.If people choose to make their own medical chooses they should be able to without the GOV. telling them how they must go about aquire medication they ether want or need.In my OPINION the Government is lying about everything and they have these regultions to keep their money train runnin.For example,VW has a diesel eng that gets 76 miles to the gal that is not allowed to be sold in the U.S however is BUILT in the U.S. WHY?Because,and you can look this up on ASK.com,if they had engines that got that much mileage they would not sell enough fuel to get the TAX money to pay for the roads.The fact is our officials have everyone so confused they do not know what to believe but you better believe they have know intentions of deregulating things like the Medical Proffesion because they the Gov get BIG MONEY from the TAXES from all that Big Money spent on Medical care and so I for one will hang with the Obama care until they truly deregulate that and the Insurance compant so as us Citizens can afford these things based on what we make versus what these things COST!

    • Don in Ohio

      Rick, you make some very good points but your English needs a little improvement. )-:
      The reason a lot of regulations exist is so the government, at all levels, can tax us. In most states, there are sales/use taxes. In some states, even if the business selling you something doesn’t collect the tax, you are requires to report and pay it. I suspect very few people do so, due to the trivial amount involved, but if caught, you have to pay up plus fines or jail time. So the gov wants to know every time money changes hands!!! I think this is why they keep going after these “private/secret” deals.
      Another example, is hotel taxes which taxes people who have no VOTE in approving the tax. Another one is local/city income taxes which you have to pay even though you do not live in the city and have no VOTE on approving the tax.
      There probably are hundreds of other examples.
      The root of most of this is the governments insatiable appetite for money, which they then use to buy votes to keep the gravy train rolling.
      This is why the TEA party is so feared by the government.

      • Don in Ohio

        The )-: should be :-), senior moment!

    • Don in Ohio

      Rick, quote “I for one will hang with the Obama care until they truly deregulate that”
      What?
      O’care is ALL about regulation, if you wait for the deregulation of ANYTHING, you’re going to have a loooong wait.

  • Betta

    “…marketplace where bitcoins were traded for a range of goods and services, including drugs…”

    And the very same thing goes on with every world currency in existance. Heck, even the USD carries traces of cocain on it. I don’t see the government confiscating and arresting the makers of the Yen, Franc or any other currency it doesn’t have control of. The government’s problem with Bitcoin is they can’t get their slimy mits on it. Guck the fovernment.