So yesterday the Feds busted the guy behind Silk Road, the marketplace for drugs and other illegal things paid in bitcoin. The indictment reads like a screenplay for a movie or Breaking Bad style television series (not that I watched Breaking Bad, just basing this on the inevitable flurry of tweets about it that I had in my stream). There should be one key takeaway here: law enforcement is easier online, not harder as government would generally have us believe. It is basically impossible to operate in modern live without leaving lots of digital footprints. Now admittedly “Dread Pirate Roberts” (really?) made some pretty glaring mistakes, such as apparently posting a question in Stackoverflow under his real name, then replacing it with a handle and later using that handle also in one of his keys.
Of course government seems hell bent on screwing up the very advantage that online provides. By taking a highly adversarial position to service providers and disrupting the trust between service providers and their endusers, government is fueling a spy-versus-spy arms race which is pushing both legal and illegal activities off shore and into deeper crypto. To see how counterproductive this is we now beginning to know what happened at Lavabit, the encrypted email service. The court ordered a turnover of keys and a wholesale access to the data with an agency promising to filter only relevant data. Instead of complying the founder shut down the service instead and is now helping to bring the litigation to light. This is a case that deserves to make its way to the US Supreme Court.
If we want any kind of network analysis at all (and I have argued that we might), then it has to be based on transparency and be done in a way that doesn’t pit service providers against their endusers or forces them to shutdown. At the moment we are doing the exact opposite which is a continuation of bad policies in past actions against Craigslist.