The Laptop that Changed the World

Day 67/365: How a guy with a laptop changed the web forever? It only took an internet connection and some luck, apparently…

Photo courtesy of Jose Walsh

If you’re young and a fan of Facebook and Instagram, chances are you have no idea who Ross Ulbricht is. Why should this interest you anyway, right? Ross was a guy like me and you, but he was able to create the biggest online drugs, arms, prostitution and even hitman market ever created.

Everything from his laptop.

Ross grew up in Austin, Texas. He was a boy scout, a good learner, basically, he was the typical kid that you’d find in Texas on the breaking of the new millennium. He graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Texas at Dallas. He even got a to study for a master’s degree in materials science and engineering, but also crystallography, but he got interested in libertarian economic theory.

Good Wagon Books

After graduation in 2009 at the Penn State University, Ulbricht moved back to Austin and started day trading, being unsatisfied with the regular employment opportunities. After he started and failed to develop a video games company shortly after the trade try, Ross partnered with his friend Donny Palmertree and built Good Wagon Books, an online store for used books. The store went successfully for a while, but his continuous break-ups with his life-long lover got him down.

The Silk Road

As an online used bookseller was not enough for him, Ross began to think about opening an online black market, using Tor and the already famous bitcoin as evasion techniques against law enforcement. With Tor, he was able to fully conceal his IP address, so he could work under the radar without problems. Using the name Dread Pirate Roberts, he began working on a website called the Silk Road in 2010, as a side project to the bookstore.

The front page of the original Silk Road website

Gary Alfort

The website was up and running for two years, generating millions upon millions of dollars to Ulbricht and his team of anonymous pirates. It was Gary Alford, an IRS investigator who worked with the DEA on the case of the Silk Road that connected with the famous Dread Pirate Roberts for the first time, back in 2013. It was a hard task for Gary and the whole DEA and the FBI to track Ulbricht down and arrest him, after gathering enough evidence that he was in fact behind the nickname and the mastermind behind Silk Road.

The Arrest

One day in October of 2013, Ulbricht was working at the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library on his laptop, a new Samsung Chromebook that he bought not long before. The FBI arrested him on the spot, but it was no easy task.

Ulbricht had no problem in getting the best quality counterfeited ID’s and drivers licences

In order to prevent him from deleting or forever encrypting data that was on the laptop he used to run the site, two agents pretending to be lovers distracted him while he was working, while a third one took his computer and inserted a USB flash drive into one of the ports, cloning all of the data on the laptop in a heartbeat.

That was the only legal way to go in order to forever prove that he was, in fact, Dread Pirate Roberts. If it were to fail, there were no other possible ways to prove that Ulbricht was the Silk Road creator and master.

Life Inprisonment

Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment in February of 2015. He was charged with money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and procuring murder. Although 6 hitmen were contracted on Silk Road, the crimes that they were paid for never happened, according to the authorities.

Ross and his sister Cally way before Silk Road was even an idea — Photo courtesy of

The Laptop

After his arrest, the laptop that Ulbricht used to operate Silk Road was seized by the FBI. The computer which forever changed the face of the internet and the world is now part of the Newseum, a museum in New York dedicated to the history of the media. That’s definitely a place that I’ll visit when I’m coming to New York in a couple of months. At the moment of the arrest, the laptop contained over 140.000 bitcoins, worth $1.4 billion today.

Final Appeal

In December of 2017, Ulbricht filed one final appeal for the Supreme Court of the United States. In it, Ross argued 2 issues, (1) “Whether the warrantless seizure of an individual’s Internet traffic information without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment;” and, (2) “Whether the Sixth Amendment permits judges to find the facts necessary to support an otherwise unreasonable sentence”

The U.S. government has until the end of the day on the 7th of March 2018 to file a response to Ulbricht’s petition. Although exciting, there’s basically no chance for a change of conviction in his case.

The Book

Although I tried my best to relate the story in as much detail as I could, from my memories of the book and the web, I highly recommend you to buy and read “American Kingpin” by Nick Bolton, an American journalist who wrote the book about Ulbricht’s life and how he was able to build his deep web empire with nothing more than a laptop and a lot of ambition.

I assure you that this is one of the best books that I have ever read, definitely my favourite book of the last 5 years.

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My name is Gabriel Iosa, I’m a 25 years old travel enthusiast, food lover, Psychology student, Full-time Freelancer, writer and Instagram fanatic. You can follow me @gabrieliosa, and if you liked this post, give it exactly 47 claps!

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