Yesterday, Brian Doherty checked in on the first day of the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the Eagle Scout who has copped to being the creator of Silk Road, the encrypted, Bitcoin-fuled marketplace that facilitated illegal drug sales and more.
At the same time that Ulbricht has said he started Silk Road as an "economic experiment," he says he says he turned over the site to others who become the pseudonymous "Dread Pirate Roberts" mastermind whom the feds are after.
Ulbricht has been charged with enough criminal activity that he faces life in prison if convicted.
Whether you ever used Silk Road or care about Ulbricht as an individual, there's plenty of reasons to be worried by and wary on the federal government's actions in the case. As I argue in a new column up at The Daily Beast,
If you care about due process, Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches, the limits of government surveillance, and Internet freedom, you should pay attention….
There remain serious questions, too, about whether the feds illegally availed themselves of NSA information about [Silk Road] server's location [in Iceland] and then faked a "parallel construction" trail of evidence that they present in court. The NSA is not supposed to be tracking the information of citizens within the United States, of course, and it's not supposed to be lending its capabilities to domestic law enforcement, either. But as Bruce Schneier writes, it's well-known that the NSA funnels information to the FBI and DEA "under the condition that they lie about it in court."…
The most potentially troubling aspect of the case ranges beyond conventional questions of due process (as disturbing as those are). It's the larger chilling effect this sort of prosecution may end up having. Silk Road users employed Tor, a free software bundle that allows users to maintain anonymity online. Ironically, the creation of Tor was partly funded by the U.S. State Department as a way of giving political dissidents a way of communicating. Yet as Ulbricht's defense fund notes, "the government equates the desire for privacy… with criminal intent."
Disclosure: I donated $100 to Ulbricht's Defense Fund a month ago. I have no idea of whether he's guilty of more than what he's admitted to so far, but I gave money because I remain troubled by the government's actions and the possible ramifications of this prosecution.
Back in November, Reason TV released this interview with Ulbricht's mother, Lyn, who lays out some of the larger issues at stake: