The Bonehead Mistake That Brought Down an Online Drug-Dealing Empire

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 2 2013 2:34 PM

The Bonehead Mistake That Brought Down an Online Drug-Dealing Empire

Ross William Ulbricht on Stack Overflow
Ross William Ulbricht, indicted for allegedly running the online contraband marketplace Silk Road, wasn't above asking for a little programming help when he needed it.

Screenshot / Stack Overflow

Even the finest programmers could use a little help from their friends on Stack Overflow now and then. The site, which invites users to ask and answer one another’s questions about specific coding problems, has become a global hub for software engineers, catering to pros and amateurs alike. Silk Road mastermind “Dread Pirate Roberts,” it seems, was no exception.

According to the criminal complaint against Ross William Ulbricht, the man who allegedly ran the vast online drug marketplace from his San Francisco apartment, he ventured humbly onto the site in March 2012 to ask a couple of friendly questions. The first one, it seems, was relatively innocuous, if a bit unorthodox. But a second query struck FBI investigators as rather incriminating, in retrospect: “How can I connect to a Tor hidden service using curl in php?” the user asked. Silk Road is, of course, a Tor hidden service—perhaps the world’s most famous one at that.

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But here’s the facepalm-worthy part: According to the criminal complaint, Ulbricht posted the question using his own real name. Less than one minute later, he changed his username to “frosty.” And then, one assumes, banged his head against a hard wall several times.  

According to the complaint, the Stack Overflow post served as key evidence for authorities trying to link Ulbricht to Silk Road. From the complaint:

Based on forensic analysis of the Silk Road Web Server, I know that the computer code ... includes a customized PHP strip based on 'curl' that is functionally very similar to the computer code described in Ulbricht's posting on Stack Overflow, and includes several lines of code that are identical to lines of code quoted in the posting.

Oh, and the encryption key on the Silk Road server ended with the substring "frosty@frosty." Whoops.

Frosty’s account lives on at Stack Overflow, where you can inspect his code and pass judgment on his chops if you’re so inclined. And while this won’t appear anywhere in the criminal charges against Ulbricht, the court of computer-programmer opinion may duly note that he asked two questions on the site, but didn’t take the trouble to answer anyone else’s.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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