Let's say, for argument's sake, you're looking to buy drugs. Not just any drugs, but top-quality shit, like pure MDMA from Holland, fish-scale cocaine, freebase DMT or maybe some high-end weed strain like Amnesia Haze. Or perhaps – again, hypothetical here – you're looking for illicit items of a different ilk, like an M16 of murky provenance, forged doctor's prescription pads or even a fully editable UCLA acceptance letter. If only there was one place to get all these things – and have them delivered to your door! Enter the world of Silk Road, an online global marketplace purveying all manner of things illegal, questionable and just plain icky. "It's ridiculously easy," says one New York hacker, "like shopping at Amazon."
Actually, shopping on Silk Road isn't quite that simple. Finding it in the first place requires some technical know-how, because its deliberately forgettable URL is useless in your regular browser; Silk Road can be accessed only through the anonymizing software Tor, which allows users to be on the Internet untraceably. Once on Silk Road, you're greeted with a forbidding-looking message: "We do not guarantee your anonymity, protection from law enforcement, or protection from other users of this service." Consider yourself warned.
Once you enter the site, however, Silk Road's user-friendly layout is soothingly, almost hilariously familiar to any online shopper, complete with a cart in the upper-right-hand corner. Except you're scrolling through a list of illegal narcotics tidily broken down by category for easy navigation: cannabis, Ecstasy, dissociatives, opioids, stimulants, benzos and – if you still haven't found what you're looking for – "other." Silk Road doesn't take credit cards. Rather, it only accepts Bitcoins, an unregulated virtual currency, not recognized by any government, generated and traded by computer users. Known as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, Bitcoins can be bought using online exchange services like Intersango. Bitcoin transactions are supposedly anonymous, although some people have their doubts – including Bitcoin developer Gavin Andresen, who says that because all Bitcoin transactions are recorded, a determined cyberdetective could trace a purchase. "All but the most sophisticated users should assume their Bitcoin transactions could be traced," warns Andresen. "And any situation where your identity is revealed – like having illicit drugs delivered to your house – is an opportunity for law enforcement to catch you."
It hasn't happened yet, however, not even after Sen. Charles Schumer of New York demanded that the DEA take down Silk Road. "Never before has a website so brazenly peddled illegal drugs online," Schumer announced this past summer. "By cracking down on the website, we can help stop these drugs from flooding our streets." Problem is, the DEA can't shut it down; due to the Tor network's encryption, law enforcement doesn't even know where to look. "Finding the body behind the servers, that's the challenge," admits DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. "Bad guys are certainly innovative and savvy when it comes to technology." So for now, the deliveries continue.
This story is from the November 10th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.