Spectator Money is out, with ideas on how to make it, spend it and even how to be seen spending it. Freddy Gray looks at the ‘social economy’ – think tax loopholes for financiers of politically favoured endeavours; while Camilla Swift peruses credit cards such as Kanye West’s ‘African American Express’ and the Dubai First Royale,
‘studded with diamonds. Bring it on, Sheikh Sugardaddy.’
Spare a thought, though, for the inconspicuous consumers – or at least, the wannabes. This segment took a hit last week in a joint operation dubbed ‘Onymous’, in which the FBI, Europol and friends arrested 17 alleged web-administrators and vendors and shuttered dozens of sites peddling child pornography, weapons, fake Danish passports, hacking services and so on.
‘Cash, drugs, gold and silver were seized’, Europol said, along with about $1 million worth of bitcoin currency. All in, the busts removed from market the approximate value of one-eighth the monthly traffic of the largest targeted site: Silk Road 2.0, which generated global sales of ‘at least approximately $8 million’ in September alone, according to the US criminal complaint. In Britain, six were arrested and bailed on suspicion of administering that and other sites.
The forums all used what’s known as ‘the onion router’, or Tor, named for its built-in layers of encryption. The software sends communications through thousands of relays, jumbling and concealing the traffic of individuals and servers alike. The technology was first developed by the Feds themselves, in a dimly lit corner of the US Naval Research Laboratory.
Erstwhile buyers on the Onymous-hit sites – a few hundred-thousand Western psychotropic drug-users – have experienced moderate delays in their delivery orders. Business Insider flagged a ‘Silk Road 3.0’ online within a day of the raids, though dark-web denizens are still speculating on how cops nailed the Tor-cloaked servers of so many otherwise unconnected sites. The list of shutdowns includes ‘Sol’s Unified USD Counterfieit’s’ [sic], the ‘Pablo Escobar Drugstore’ and a sinister-sounding ‘Zero Squad’.
Onymous has also sparked whittering about a supposedly revolutionary model in radical ‘free’ (criminal) trade: ‘Open Bazaar’. ‘Open source’ and feel-good ‘peer-to-peer’, the new decentralised network amounts to the digital equivalent of property rights (and responsibilities) for market-stall owners. Anyone can sell anything they want on the Tor-friendly bourse, bitcoin-denominated and tax free. But if a user gets nabbed for negotiating goods more sinister than Taki’s next yacht, Open Bazaar itself (unlike Silk Road) would remain theoretically invulnerable.
Decentralisation in black-market tech is fueled by the buffoonery of its accused tycoons. For all the crypto-onion computer wizardry, Onymous prosecutors have outlined lapses in discretion to rival any Dubai diamond-flasher. FBI agent Vincent D’Agostino offered several examples in his sworn deposition against Silk Road 2.0’s alleged operator (Blake Benthall, aka ‘Defcon’, who has yet to enter a plea on the charges):
Based on a review of records provided by the [non-US] service provider for the Silk Road 2.0 Server, I have discovered that the server was controlled and maintained during the relevant time by an individual using the email account ‘email@example.com’.
If true, could we blame 26-year-old ‘Defcon’? Sneaking around is for plebs; Silk Road 2.0 banked monthly commissions worth $400,000, the FBI estimates. Success breeds complacency and besides, if rappers and cronies and sheikhs needn’t be discreet, why should the geeks?
Alas and indeed: the truly rich and powerful transact their shenanigans the old-fashioned way – hiding in plain sight, funneled through the entertainment budgets of worthy tax-credited charities. For everyone else, there will always be a ‘free’ market for whatever currency can buy. Just don’t expect it to be foolproof.