Working for the illicit Silk Road 3 drug-dealing website is all about balancing risk and reward, as IBTimes UK found out when we spoke to one of its senior employees.
The sentencing of Ross Ulbricht to life in prison for creating and running the original Silk Road sent shock waves through the dark web, a shadowy corner of the internet hidden from Google, where you can purchase drugs, firearms, fake passports and stolen credit cards.
The subsequent shuttering of Silk Road 2 and arrest of alleged owner Blake Benthall must surely have made running an online drug empire, no matter how lucrative, a wholly unattractive business venture.
But no, like the mythical Hydra that grew two heads for every one cut off, when one drug-dealing website is shut down several more emerge to take its place. After a shaky start caused by claims it was a honey pot created by the FBI, Silk Road 3 now has over 100,000 users who buy and sell every drug imaginable. At the time of publication, the website had over 1,200 items for sale, including drugs, fake ID, stolen credit card numbers and website hacking services.
Continuing the legacy
"We decided it was upon us to continue the legacy," Silk Road 3 employee Fezzik told IBTimes UK, describing the arrest of Benthall and loss of Silk Road 2 as a "tragic fall", and Ulbricht's life sentence as "despicable and inhumane". He says the decision to put Ulbricht behind bars for the rest of his life with no chance of parole was "clearly designed to install fear, as opposed to serve justice".
And install fear it has. The father of two says the fear of being arrested "haunts me each day...[but] it reminds me to continuously improve my operational security in order to stay one step ahead of those who wish to capture me... only a fool would think he could not be caught".
But while high-profile arrests, trials and sentences may have instilled fear, they are also causing the dark web community to grow. Fezzik said: "Since the fall of Silk Road 1 the DN [darknet, AKA dark web] community has only been growing. I believe that a lot of this growth is due to the media attention that Silk Road and Ulbricht's trial caused. I dare to say that if Ross hadn't been arrested the DN community wouldn't be nearly as vast and successful as it is today."
A safer way to buy drugs
Darknet websites like Silk Road and its predecessors employ a user ratings system to keep both product and service quality high. Buyers leave positive or negative feedback, which can be read on a seller's profile page, helping future buyers decide where to shop. This system, dark web users claim, makes buying drugs online much safer than in person.
Fezzik believes this "high level of physical safety provided for both the buyer and seller" is why DN sites are growing in popularity. Looking to the future, he doubts the "cat and mouse game" between the dark web and police will ever stop, adding: "If things continue as they have been I expect that a large percentage of drug deals will take place over the internet, which in turn will reduce the amount of drug-related violence and criminals on the street."
Balancing risk and reward
Fezzik gave few details about his personal life. Although he often spoke during British working hours, he occasionally replied in the middle of the night. His English is very good due to attending university in Europe, but he was not born here and now lives in Asia.
He makes money for his work on Silk Road 3, but no where near the millions of dollars Ulbricht was earning through commission during his time as Dread Pirate Roberts, the name borrowed (as was Fezzik's) from The Princess Bride and passed down from one Silk Road administrator to the next.
"The amount [I earn] is equivalent to a standard part-time job in the west, which translates to quite a nice amount in my country, but it is still not enough alone to risk my freedom." That shortfall, he says, is made up by "the cause" – Fezzik's belief that his work is creating a safer, fairer environment for drug sellers and buyers alike.
Protecting an innocent family – and falling in love with Silk Road
But although the extra income means a better life for him and his family, Fezzik worries about what would happen to them if he were found and arrested. "Financially, measures have been taken to ensure that my family could survive [but] emotionally I am not sure how they would take it." Fezzik's family are ignorant of his work on Silk Road 3, but "a few close friends are aware of what I do for a living."
The fear of being caught by police has stuck with Fezzik from when he first used the darkweb to purchase drugs. "I must admit, my first order was very scary. I was expecting the police to arrive and take me away, but after I realised how safe it was I began using [the original Silk Road] regularly, got involved in the community and have been in love ever since."
Adding a touch of humility to what he does, Fezzik highlights flexible working hours as a main perk of working for Silk Road. "Some days I may be online a lot, some days I may not be online for a long time at all," he said, adding that working for the site's owner is "a pretty standard boss-employee relationship. He is a good leader and I am very glad to work for him,"
Exchanging a single message with IBTimes UK, Silk Road 3's owner refused our request for interview, but granted Fezzik permission to speak on behalf of him and the website generally.
What about the Dread Pirate Roberts?
Although an automated message sent to all new users of Silk Road 3 is signed by Dread Pirate Roberts, the pseudonym adopted by Ulbricht and the owner of Silk Road 2 is no longer in use. The name was intended to represent anyone who took the helm at Silk Road and its successors, but now Fezzik says he is the only employee to use a name from The Princess Bride story, "as a way of continuing the Silk Road tradition."
Despite the obvious fear and relatively small financial gain, Fezzik remains upbeat and optimistic about Silk Road's future. "We aren't going anywhere any time soon."