Summer 2015

Wesley Lacson, TCU BIS, Beata Jones, Silk Road, Agora, Dark Web research, black market

The Other Silk Road

Wesley Lacson ’15 conducted research on the Silk Road marketplace from a business perspective.

How do the black market trade in opium and business school intersect? The FBI shut down the Silk Road, the online marketplace for illegal goods, in 2013. Wesley Lacson took notice, and not just because the matter was front-page news from Reddit to Time magazine.

“The fact that Silk Road was alive for two years, and that it was this huge thriving community of people really fascinated me,” said Lacson, a business information systems major. “Might as well parlay this into a good thesis topic.”

Lacson was familiar with the website “tangentially,” and the law enforcement intrusion was auspicious timing for his senior research project.

Business information systems, the study of how commerce and technology intersect in a universe ruled by big data, applies to the hidden corners of the Internet. The Silk Road purchases may not have been lawful, but the currency required to make them, Bitcoin, has “lots of legitimate potential,” Lacson said.

From a tech perspective, Silk Road operated on a network with practical implications for consumer privacy. The website used Tor, which encrypted electronic information and sent it through random networks anonymously across the globe, making operations difficult to track or hack.

“Users aren’t going down without a fight. It seems like every time [a dark web marketplace] goes down, two take its place.”

At the intersection of everything sat controversial Internet legislature, the battle to regulate the evolving methods of buying and selling goods and services and transmitting information. Concurrently to the shutdown, U.S. lawmakers were debating the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The bill failed, but debate about whether and/or how to legislate the frontiers of the net continues.

Lacson’s research advisor insisted on an academic approach to studying what existed primarily in a subterranean world of the dark web. “The challenges for him were to come up with interesting questions that matter, and the ongoing Silk Road investigation, which limited some of the study approaches,” said Beata Jones, professor of professional practice in business information systems.

Lacson wanted to know more about Silk Road’s buyers and sellers, whether they comprised a cohesive community in an anonymous 21st century way, and whether they thought technology would again make an unregulated marketplace possible. The young researcher surfed forums on spinoff Silk Road sites and read endless comments, but he said “the hard part was finding an objective way to analyze something so subjective and fluid.”

Because Silk Road operated on a highly encrypted, decentralized network in the dark web, Lacson did not have access to hard data. However, spinoff sites, such as Silk Road 2.0 and Agora, used the same Amazon-like forum-marketplace format and provided plenty of user-generated comments.

After selecting the research method of content analysis, Lacson pored through forum posts, classifying the comments based on keywords and tenor of language. “It’s exploratory research, which is still rigorous in its own right but follows a different structure.”

In the online forums, participants disagreed about whether Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted on seven federal charges, made a sloppy mistake or whether cybercrime investigators penetrated the supposedly fail-safe onion routing technology with a computer virus.

“There are a bunch of awesome conspiracy theories out there,” said Lacson who presented his initial findings at a conference in Denver last year.

“The potential of that dark net medium is huge and kind of untapped and unrealized”

In his research findings, Lacson said users still have faith that an anarchist utopia can work, that technological innovation will continue to outpace efforts to regulate and control. (Last November, the FBI and Europol shut down Silk Road 2.0. The founders of Agora disappeared along with the site in March.)

“Cutting the head of the hydra” will not disrupt the overall health of the organism, said Lacson. “Users aren’t going down without a fight. It seems like every time [a dark web marketplace] goes down, two take its place.”

While knowledge about black markets may not play into Lacson’s day-to-day life as a management consultant after graduation, his senior research project does provide some understanding of the new paradigms of tomorrow’s business world.

“The potential of that dark net medium is huge and kind of untapped and unrealized,” he said. “A very live conversation is still happening.”