Unintended consequences: Tor, freedom, and drugs

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Silk Road
The Silk Road drugs marketplace site (from Wikipedia)

Tor website
Yesterday, I discovered how, with U.S. government funding, the most effective, inexpensive, and easy-to-use illegal drugs dealing bazaar has opened on the Internet.

Silk Road uses Tor, a system designed to provide pure anonymity for web browsing and communication. Gawker.com reports the not-so-secret (if you know where to find it) website is designed to use a digital currency called “bitcoins,” which are also untraceable — and have escalated in value because of the new-found use for this untraceable money.

Through a combination of anonymity technology and a sophisticated user-feedback system, Silk Road makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics—and seemingly as safe. It’s Amazon—if Amazon sold mind-altering chemicals.

Here is just a small selection of the 340 items available for purchase on Silk Road by anyone, right now: a gram of Afghani hash; 1/8th ounce of “sour 13” weed; 14 grams of ecstasy; .1 grams tar heroin. A listing for “Avatar” LSD includes a picture of blotter paper with big blue faces from the James Cameron movie on it. The sellers are located all over the world, a large portion from the U.S. and Canada.

But even Silk Road has limits: You won’t find any weapons-grade plutonium, for example. Its terms of service ban the sale of “anything who’s purpose is to harm or defraud, such as stolen credit cards, assassinations, and weapons of mass destruction.”

Yesterday, I discovered Tor’s open website, and successfully downloaded the software to launch the anonymous server on my computer. (In a quick search, I couldn’t find the Silk Road site through the link provided in the Gawker.com article, but since I’m not in the market for illegal drugs, this is no great loss.)

Tor asserts that, that while some illegal activity is possible on its network, the offsetting social good far outweighs the costs and risks. Criminals will always be able find ways to hide their ill-deeds because they are willing and able to pay a high price for secrecy. However, “ordinary people” in places where Internet freedom is not assured (think of places like Iran and China) need to have this sort of privacy. So do law enforcement agencies, who might want to monitor criminal activity without being compromised. Field agents, businesses exchanging or researching confidential matters, and even ordinary private individuals with the desire to express thoughts or opinions that might get them in trouble in their “real life” also can benefit from the system.

These assertions are true,but as some observers have pointed out, while Silk Road may have some limits, other sites on the private and secret network may not know the same ethical boundaries. Wanna buy some plutonium? How about child porn? You could open and maintain a marketplace for virtually everything “wrong” under the sun. (Tor however says Internet nuisances such as spam would be hard to manage because at some point the yukky stuff would need to emerge from behind the Tor firewall, and thus could be nipped in the bud by other means.)

As for Silk Road and other services, I suppose Tor could argue that if police authorities noticed fishy activities in their communities, they could also start monitoring and even secretly participating in the Tor network, ultimately cracking the code for larger dealers and drug operations when they intercept the physical drugs on the receiving end.

Obviously, I doubt many architectural, engineering and construction marketers will need this service in our daily lives, but this story shows something about the incredible complexity and multi-layered universe that may be just outside our normal range of vision.

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