Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
American Kingpin is the implausible but true story of a twenty-something self-taught programmer with intense libertarian beliefs, named Ross Ulbricht, who, in 2011, single-handedly set up a soon-to-be very popular covert site on the Dark Web called “the Silk Road.” The site was started as a marketplace for illegal drugs, but Ulbricht eventually expanded operations to trade in forged passports, counterfeit cash, guns, poisons, and even body parts. By using the Dark Web platform Tor, financing his activities with Bitcoin, and adopting the nom-de-guerre Dread Pirate Roberts, Ulbricht remained anonymous, free, and unpunished for two years.
[The Dark Web is a part of the internet that is incapable of being penetrated by conventional search engines. Therefore it tends to be used by those engaged in illicit activities and/or those excessively concerned with privacy. Tor is the internet browser of choice for exploring the Dark Web. It operates on a worldwide network of servers specifically made for private communication. Tor was created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the mid-1990s by military researchers, and employs technology enabling users to engage in online activity with masked identities, encrypting any data sent from anyone’s computer. Bitcoin makes it possible to send and receive money without giving any personal identifying information.]
In June 2011, “Gawker” published an article about the site which led to an increase in website traffic, helping to expand the Silk Road to a $1.2 billion per year enterprise. Once the site was known publicly, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer asked federal law enforcement authorities to shut it down, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Department of Justice. As the Feds closed in, Ulbricht took even more drastic steps to protect himself and silence anyone who might know his identity. After an online quest that seemed as thrilling for this reader as any car chase in the movies, Ulbricht was finally arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a life in prison. (He is currently working on securing a presidential pardon.)
Nick Bilton was able to piece together the convoluted history of the rise and eventual capture of Ulbricht with the help of some relentless government agents finding unusual clues as to Ulbricht’s identity and whereabouts. Adding yet another dramatic twist to the story was the involvement of two now-convicted, corrupt federal agents. A Secret Service agent stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin from the Silk Road, and a DEA agent attempted to extort Ulbricht, and even sold him secret information from the Silk Road investigation.
Bilton is somewhat sympathetic in his treatment of Ulbricht, whom he describes as oddly idealistic in attempting to establish a libertarian Shangri-La where freedom-loving people could enjoy personal pleasures without interference from Big Brother. Judge Katherine Forrest, who ultimately sentenced him, was not similarly disposed. In her words:
“You are no better a person than any other drug dealer, and your education does not give you a special place of privilege in our criminal system.”
Evaluation: American Kingpin is a fascinating account of a tale almost too quixotic to be fiction. If you want a non-fiction page turner, this book will not disappoint.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Published by Portfolio/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017