The Deep Web

An arrest in San Francisco reveals an unpoliced corner of the Internet

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To his two roommates, "Josh" seemed like a regular guy, living much of his life online like many other Bay Area techies. But to federal authorities, Ross Ulbricht, 29, was far better known as Dread Pirate Roberts, owner and creator of Silk Road, thought to be the Internet's largest marketplace for illicit drugs.

Visitors to Ulbricht's highly encrypted site could browse the wares of thousands of dealers, buying LSD, cocaine and other narcotics using bitcoin, an untraceable Internet currency. Silk Road would then deliver the drugs--or the fake IDs, hacking software or automatic weapons also for sale there--by mail. In return, Ulbricht earned about $80 million in fees, the feds alleged in a 39-page indictment.

Authorities had been chasing Ulbricht for years, but it wasn't until a U.S. customs agent on the Canadian border opened a package during a routine search in July and found nine fake IDs bearing Ulbricht's picture that they closed in on their target. The package led authorities to his San Francisco apartment. Ulbricht has been charged in New York with narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering. He's also been charged in Maryland with conspiring to commit murder for allegedly hiring an assassin to take out a hacker who had been threatening him.

The case illuminated both the depth of criminal activity in the Web's back rooms and the obstacles to shutting them down. Without the ability to subpoena and search the Web's hidden levels, authorities are forced to resort to old-fashioned shoe leather to track some of the world's most technologically advanced criminals. Although Ulbricht's arrest is a victory for the FBI, cops know that the Internet is a hydra: cut off one head and others will take its place. A handful of replacement sites have already rushed to fill the void left by Silk Road.

And if the Web has become a safe harbor for drug dealers, arms traders and human traffickers, there is no agreement about how to police it. Together with state and local officials, the FBI this spring recommended an overhaul of federal cybersecurity laws to help law enforcement better monitor the Internet. But the revelations made possible by Edward Snowden have led Congress to move, if anything, in the opposite direction, looking to limit the government's ability to tap digital communications. In the face of a public outcry, the Obama Administration has tabled the FBI's proposal. Which means the deep Web remains mostly impervious to oversight. "There is a lot of crime online--it's a real worry," says House intelligence-panel chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican. "If we don't do more to stop it, it's going to come back and bite us."