It’s a fraction of its former size, but the digital drug bazaar Silk Road has risen again.
The first Silk Road was suddenly shut down in October when the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, the man they claim ran the site under the handle Dread Pirate Roberts. Efforts to relaunch the site began almost immediately, and the new version of the site is a pixel-for-pixel replica. It’s also being run by a person or persons calling themselves Dread Pirate Roberts.
Silk Road 2.0 launched on November 6th, making it one month old today. Some of the same sellers returned, and the site already features nearly 3,000 illegal drugs for sale. That’s almost a quarter of the inventory the original site had at the time it was shut down.
Exactly how many users have registered on the new Silk Road is hard to say. The new Dread Pirate Roberts did not respond to a request for comment and Libertas, a site admin, declined to be interviewed. Activity on the corresponding Silk Road 2.0 forum, however, suggests the new Silk Road marketplace has fewer than 5 percent of the old site’s user base.
The marketplace gives no clues as to how many users are registered. On the forum, however, user profiles are numbered and totaled. Not all Silk Road users post in the forums, and not all forum users have actually made purchases on the Silk Road, but the number of users on each site is probably correlated.
There are already nearly 3,000 illegal drugs for sale
The old Silk Road forum had 202,095 users, about 21 percent of the 957,079 users the FBI claims were registered on the marketplace. The new forum has almost 9,500 users. Assuming the ratio of forum users to marketplace users is roughly the same as it was before the takedown, the number of registered users on the marketplace is probably around 45,000.
That's nothing compared to the first incarnation, which had done $1.2 billion worth of transactions by the time it was brought down. Still, it shows that the community is committed to rebuilding.
Buyers and sellers are clearly wary of doing business again so soon after the Silk Road bust. The founders say the new site has more built-in security than the old one, but the FBI’s investigation managed to circumvent any technological precautions. Instead of breaking encryption or hacking into servers, FBI agents posed as vendors and "turned" one Silk Road employee into an informant.
Based on forum registrations, 5 percent of users have returned
The feds also got a copy of the content of Silk Road’s servers from one of its hosting providers overseas simply by asking for it. Police began arresting top dealers soon after the site was brought down and interrogating them about their clients.
The investigation proved that much of the security of Silk Road was illusory. Hiding your IP address by using the anonymizing network Tor and the semi-anonymous currency Bitcoin doesn't help if your dealer is in FBI custody.
There’s also the common suspicion that the entire site is a honeypot set up by law enforcement.
"Nobody ever assumed that closing Silk Road was going to mean that this was the end," says Rusty Payne, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which participated in the first Silk Road bust.
He says the DEA is aware of the new Silk Road and other marketplaces and cautions users to stay away. "Three months ago I was reading about how these people were untouchable and there was no way to track these guys," he tells The Verge. "Funny how things change."
It doesn't sound like Silk Road is a priority for the agency, however. Payne added that large-scale trafficking, which is the DEA’s first priority, still happens in the real world.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to say whether the agency is aware of or investigating the new Silk Road.
Even if the feds aren’t involved, Silk Road 2.0 could still be a setup
Even if the feds aren’t involved, Silk Road 2.0 could still be a setup. The people behind the site are of course anonymous. They could shut down the site and run away with users’ bitcoins at any time, which is what seems to have happened at the competing site Sheep Marketplace, where around $100 million worth of bitcoins have disappeared.
But the longer the new site sticks around, the more people are signing up. "Man it feel so good to see the whole look of v1 and sh*t again," user OneTuppence2012 wrote in the forums.