Antisocial media

How LinkedIn and Google+ gave away the alleged owner of the internet’s largest drug market

October 2, 2013
Obsession
Cybercrime
October 2, 2013
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This item has been corrected.

This is how your social media activity gives you away. Ross William Ulbricht was arrested this afternoon in San Francisco for, among other things, conspiracy to “violate the narcotics law of the United States.” Ulbricht is allegedly the Dread Pirate Roberts, the owner and administrator of Silk Road, a hidden website known as a destination to buy drugs. According to the complaint filed by authorities, Ulbricht made a series of rookie mistakes that led to his identification, chief among them using his real email address with his real name.

Ulbricht posted a comment on a Bitcoin forum in 2011 using his the email address rossulbricht@gmail.com. The public Google+ profile associated with the account (which Google all but forces all users of Gmail to have), listed Ulbricht’s favorite YouTube videos, several of which were posted by the Mises Institute, which promotes the work of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. According to the complaint, the Mises Institute’s site allows users to create profiles. Ulbricht did.

So far, so innocent. But what clinched it for investigators is the Dread Pirate Roberts’s signature includes a link to the Mises Institute. He has also credited Austrian economic theory and Mises’s work as “providing the philosophical underpinnings for Silk Road,” according to the complaint.

Linkedin

Agents also looked at Ulbricht’s profile on LinkedIn. The complaint notes that while Ulbricht studied materials science during a post-graduate degree at the Pennsylvania State University, he writes that his goals have shifted. “I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression [sic] amongst mankind,” Ulbricht’s LinkedIn “summary” reads. “To that end, 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.”

Agents were, naturally, watching Ulbricht’s online movements and tracking his conversations and log-ins. But the first crucial clues came from Ulbricht’s sloppy forum postings and further confirmation from his social media profiles.

Correction (Sept. 15, 2013): An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited the University of Pennsylvania as Ross Ulbricht’s alma mater. It has been changed to Pennsylvania State University.

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