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Lessons from Silk Road: don't host your virtual illegal drug bazaar in Iceland

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iceland sarah ackerman flickr
iceland sarah ackerman flickr

When it comes to protecting your virtual black market from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), some countries are better than others. As it turns out, Iceland is probably not where you want to be. While the country may have protected WikiLeaks from the Americans, it's not harboring the recently busted illegal drug bazaar Silk Road. The Reykjavik Metropolitan Police have confirmed that they handed over data on the Silk Road at the request of American authorities.

It's unclear how much information Iceland turned over, but the FBI claims two Silk Road servers were based there. Icelandic police say the site was actually hosted there. Since Iceland does not have a formal Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the US, it appears that the FBI negotiated a special one-time agreement in order to get the data.

It still looks like the bulk of the information that broke open the case did not come from Iceland, however. The complaint says "an image of the Silk Road Web Server was made on or about July 23rd, 2013, and produced thereafter to the FBI" as a result of a request made to a foreign country under a formal MLAT.

"An image of the Silk Road Web Server was made on or about July 23rd, 2013."

That image, or bit-for-bit copy, of the Silk Road server gave authorities access to private messages between the Silk Road's owner and other members of the site. It was instrumental in seizing the site and arresting Ross Ulbricht, the man police allege was behind the Silk Road.

Runa Sandvik, who works on the anonymizing network Tor, has been trying to figure out which country handed over that server image. She initially ruled out Iceland because it does not have an MLAT with the US. Various Silk Road content was also hosted in the US, Latvia, and Malaysia. Latvia and Malaysia are both MLAT signatories. If the request was indeed made under an MLAT, it looks like the image either came from one of those countries or another that has not been revealed yet by the FBI.

Another possibility is that the FBI's complaint erroneously claimed the request was made under an MLAT, when the reality was less formal. Either way, future virtual drug kingpins now know that Iceland is no safe haven.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Malaysia is not an MLAT signatory; that is incorrect. Malaysia and the US signed an MLAT in 2009.