Early life and education
Ulbricht grew up in the Austin metropolitan area. He served as a Boy Scout, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. He attended West Ridge Middle School, and Westlake High School, both near Austin, Texas. He graduated from high school in 2002.
He attended the University of Texas at Dallas on a full academic scholarship, and graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He then attendedPennsylvania State University, where he was in a master’s degree program in materials science and engineering and studied crystallography. By the time Ulbricht graduated he had lost interest in his major and was interested in libertarian economic theory. In particular, Ulbricht adhered to the political philosophy ofLudwig von Mises and supported Ron Paul, and participated in college debates to discuss his economic views.
Ulbricht graduated from Penn State in 2009 and returned to Austin. By this time Ulbricht, finding regular employment unsatisfying, wanted to become an entrepreneur, but his first attempts to start his own business failed. He eventually partnered with a friend to help build an online used book seller, Good Wagon Books. His limited business success, combined with a breakup with his on-and-off girlfriend from Penn State, left Ulbricht deeply dissatisfied with his life.
Silk Road, arrest and trial
As early as 2009 Ulbricht had been contemplating the idea of building an online black market that would use Tor and bitcoin to evade law enforcement. Tor is a protocol which encrypts data sent online through intermediary servers before reaching a final destination; by hosting his market as a Tor site, Ulbricht could conceal its IP address. Bitcoin is an online virtual currency; while all bitcoin transactions are recorded on a log, the blockchain, if users can avoid linking their identities to their online “wallets” they can conduct transactions with considerable anonymity.
Ulbricht began work on developing his online black market in 2010 as a side project to Good Wagon Books. He also sporadically kept a diary during the operating history of Silk Road; in his first entry he outlined his situation prior to launch, and predicted he would make 2011 “a year of prosperity” through his ventures. Ulbricht may also have included a reference to Silk Road on his LinkedIn page, where he discussed his wish to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind” and claimed “I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.” To author Nathaniel Popper, the creation of Silk Road was an act of “sheer desperation” after Ulbricht exhausted most of the nest egg he had out of college on his failed businesses. Ulbricht moved to San Francisco prior to his arrest.
Ulbricht was first connected to “Dread Pirate Roberts” by Gary Alford, an IRS investigator working with the DEA on the Silk Road case, in mid-2013. In October 2013, Ulbricht was arrested and accused by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of being the “mastermind” behind the site. Ulbricht was taken into custody at the Glen Parkbranch of the San Francisco Public Library.
To prevent Ulbricht from encrypting or deleting data on the laptop he was using to run the site as he was arrested, two agents pretended to be quarreling lovers. When they had sufficiently distracted him, one of the agents took his computer away and inserted a USB flash drive that cloned all the data on the hard drive. Agent Chris Tarbellpresented Ulbricht the warrant for his arrest.
Ulbricht was charged with money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and procuring murder. The charge of procuring murder was removed from the indictment although the evidence was factored into Ulbricht’s sentence. Ulbricht was convicted of all the remaining charges after a jury trial that concluded in February 2015. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on 29 May 2015. His lawyers submitted an appeal on 12 January 2016, centered on claims that the prosecution illegally withheld evidence of DEA agents’ malfeasance in the investigation of Silk Road, for which they were convicted.
The prosecutor believed that none of the six contracted murders-for-hire occurred despite Ulbricht having paid $730,000 to have them done. A charge of procuring murder is to be dealt with in a separate pending trial in Maryland.
He is currently serving his life sentence at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York.
- Deep Web (film)
- USBKill, kill switch software created in response to circumstances of Ulbricht’s arrest
- Variety Jones and Smedley
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