Nick Bilton is a British-American journalist and author. He is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, where he writes features and columns for the magazine and website. He co-wrote the 2015 Vanity Fair New Establishment List.
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I recently wrote a true-life thriller about the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, the founder of the online black market Silk Road. Through thousands of hours of research and interviews and millions of words of documents and chat logs, I was able to tell the complete story of Ross and the rise and fall of Silk Road. It all started when a 26-year-old libertarian idealist and former Boy Scout, launched "a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them." He called it Silk Road, opened for business on the Dark Web and was christened as the Dread Pirate Roberts. The site grew at a tremendous pace, soon processing hundreds of millions of dollars in sales of drugs, hacking software, forged passports, guns, grenades, poisons and possibly even people's body parts. Ask me anything.
Did u test out any of the product while dong your research??
Ha. Hi Snoop Dogg. I didn't try anything on the site, but the real question is, did you?
What is Ross like as a person? And is there something that's now taken the place of Silk Road... or is it just a more prevalent, dispersed market now?
I've never spoken to Ross in person, but I feel like I have given the amount of time I spent with the research, and seeing him during the trial. From the hundreds of people I spoke with for the reporting of the book, everyone said he was kind, patient and thoughtful — and of course smart. But, in his online world, his persona morphed as the site grew and his power and influence did too.
Is there anything that didn't make it into the book that you wish had? Or any cool stories that didn't seem to fit?
I always find the process of writing a book is less about what makes it in, and more about what doesn't. In this book, it was really all the people who didn't make it in. There are six or so main "characters," Ross (DPR), Variety Jones (his Consigliere), and an agent from DHS, IRS, FBI and DEA. There were so many more people involved in the case on the Silk Road side and law enforcement and I wish I could have told their stories, too.
As for cool stories that didn't fit. There is one moment when the FBI was surveilling Ross in the weeks before he was arrested. One evening, he was on a date with a woman he met on a dating website, and an agent sat behind them in the restaurant listening to their conversation. The agent overhead him talking about "cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin." It turned out I knew the woman he was on the date with; she had complained to a friend that she went on a totally boring date with a random guy, where all he talked about was "cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin."
What is the craziest thing you found in your research?
While Ross Ulbricht lived a very private life in the real world, he lived a very public one online. As a result, he left behind an unbelievable amount of information, including chat logs, photos, videos, diaries, comments on social media and so on. By far the craziest thing was in one of those chat logs when he was discussing selling body parts (kidneys, livers etc.) on the Silk Road with some of his lieutenants.
I preordered your book and look forward to reading it when I get home. As a cryptographer who was involved in the community when Silk Road was shut down, I am curious if the book speculates, as we in the community did, that Ross' order for a hit was fabricated to help convict him. It was also well-known that there were LEA honeypots on Silk Road; it was never possible to buy poisons, explosives or assassinations.
Here is a question mark to appease this subreddit's retarded moderators?
Ha, regarding the ?
To answer your other question. One of the things the book clearly shows is how clumsy the U.S. Govt. can be. (I won't get into that here, you'll see when you read it.) And that said, I was able to read the 2.1 million words of chat logs and diaries on Ross's computer. When my researcher and I took those logs (over almost three years) and coupled them with Ross's social media posts, photos, videos etc., it became apparent that in order to fabricate anything, you'd have needed a team of hundreds of people working months to pull it off. Each time Ross said on social media or in email that he was going away, at that exact moment, DPR said the same thing. DPR would reference things that had happened on a trip Ross had been on and this happened hundreds of times. DPR talked about things that only Ross would have known about (like camping with his dad as a boy, his College girlfriend cheating on him, or a women he referred to as an "angel" he met on a camping trip). After thousands of hours of research and interviews, there isn't a doubt in my mind that Ross was DPR, and he was the only one.
Sorry, to finish that answer, while the "murder" of Curtis Green was clearly fabricated by Carl Force, the other "hits" were discovered after Ross was arrested in the chat logs and diary entries on his computer. So in short, no.
What inspired you to write AMERICAN KINGPIN? What was it about Ross's story that interested you?
I lived in San Francisco in 2013 in this sleepy part of the city called Glen Park. I used to walk my dog to the park a few times a week and I would pass this tiny little library the size of a shoe store. When Ross was arrested there, I was amazed that someone could run a massive drug empire from that little library. The more I started to read about Ross, and his vision for the Silk Road (and his beliefs that all drugs should be legal) the more I became interested in the case.
During all of your research, what was the craziest thing that you discovered about Ross Ulbricht or Silk Road itself?
I answered that below, about selling body parts. But as an added bonus, I will offer a story from the law enforcement side of the story: The DEA and FBI were both competing with each other to catch DPR, and they both managed to find one of the servers, but through separate means. The DEA decided to go into the house where there servers were stored with guns drawn like it was a huge drug raid. When they got inside, upsetting the owner, there was a pile of computers (the servers) and they picked up one machine to get another machine beneath it. The agents were rude and took the machine without apologizing for the commotion. What they didn't realize, was that the computer they had moved actually had a complete backup of the Silk Road on it. The one they grabbed had been erased. In other words, they literally held the Silk Road in their hands, and had no idea.
Do you feel his lengthy prison sentence was appropriate for the crimes he committed?
That is a great question, and one I struggle with still to this day. When I see how much pain his family has been through, I don't think the sentence was appropriate for the crime. But when I talk to the families of people who overdosed on the site, I feel differently. One thing I will note is that Ross was offered several plea deals that likely would have seen him in jail for 10 to 30 years and he chose instead to fight the case. As someone close to him told me, it was hubris that was his downfall, not the actual website.
Having covered the tech industry for years, did you notice any parallels (the way they operated, it's early thinking, etc.) between Silk Road and other companies you've written about? For example, during your time writing the book you thought "whoa, this totally reminds me of X company."
Yes, honestly: Uber. I was amazed that Ross, as himself and as DPR, quoted Ayn Rand, and so did execs at Uber. Uber connected passengers and drivers directly. The Silk Road connected buyers and sellers directly. And when it came to management style, Ross and Travis employed the same win-at-all-costs mentality, offering inspirational speeches to employees that were almost indistinguishable from one-another.
How easily could another Silk Road spring up, and do you think the govt would have an easier time shutting similar attempts in the future?
There are dozens of Silk Road-like websites that took SR's place when it was taken down, including AlphaBay, Silk Road 3, Dream Market, Valhalla, Hansa and many more. The difficulty with shutting all of these sites down is that many are based oversees in Russia and China. The government's biggest challenge today is that these sites make it possible for people to buy Fentanyl (a synthetic version of heroin that is 50 to 100 times stronger) directly on the Internet, which is leading to thousands of overdoses in the United States.
How did you convince people like Curtis Clark Green to speak with you?
Hi Ryan, I'm a big fan of your writing. I've found that people are much more open to talking to reporters for a book than for one-off stories, and from what I can tell, that's because they see a different kind of longevity to a book. As for Curtis in particular, I worked with the guys from Epic Magazine on the some of the reporting, and they had developed a relationship with him for their Wired article. Again, love your writing, hope you enjoy the book!