Book review: American Kingpin, by Nick Bilton. Portfolio 2017.

american_kingpin

The Deep Web is a kind of “secret” part of the Internet only reachable by a special browser called Tor. The place is basically a digital reflection of the human id: illegal pornography, weird sexual fantasies (often including rape or other crimes), sick videos – it’s all right there.

A few years ago, a new site popped up there, seemingly out of nowhere: The Silk Road, a website that facilitated the buying and selling of drugs, guns, stolen software, stolen electronics, and the like. It became a hit overnight and, considering the nature of the goods changing hands through the site, a fresh nightmare for governments and law enforcement agencies. The anonymous nature of the Deep Web and the Tor browser made finding the creator of the site that much more difficult.

Despite the challenging premise, the creator of the site was ultimately captured. He turned out to be a brilliant young do-it-yourself libertarian named Ross Ulbricht, a physics whiz kid and self-taught computer genius who believed the government should not be able to regulate what people put in their bodies. He was running the multi-million dollar drug empire from a Samsung 700z laptop, borrowing wi-fi from local coffee shops in Austin, Texas and San Francisco, California.

This book tells the story of the creation of the website, and the efforts of the various law enforcement agents (from the DEA, Homeland Security and FBI, among others) to find the person behind the “Amazon of Drugs”.

Bilton is a master storyteller, and he knows the tech and start-up worlds well, having written about both before.

The portrait he paints of the young Ulbricht is vivid and alive, the story of a young man who believes he is making a difference in the world by challenging the government on its drug laws head-on. Whatever you might think of Ross Ulbricht, he had the guts to follow through on what he believed: instead of arguing on Twitter or lecturing his friends about the hypocracy of the “War on Drugs”, he built something of his own, and left a lasting impression on the world, for better or for worse.

American Kingpin also succeeds in balancing the stories of the agents on Ulbricht’s trail with the rest of the narrative. Determined, inventive, and loyal to the very government the Silk Road challenged, they worked around the clock to dig up “Dread Pirate Roberts” (Ulbricht’s user name on the Silk Road) from the murky waters of the Deep Web. In presenting these agents as human beings too, Bilton evokes the theme of loyalty vs. rebellion towards authority, an age-old question that gets a fresh treatment between the pages of this book.

An enjoyable read that tells an unforgettable true crime story, while at the same time sophisticating the reader with regard to Internet security, digital crime, and the battle between libertarian political philosophy versus governmental institutions.

Grade: 4.5/5

 

 

 

 

Author: booksbulletsandbadomens

teemutku@protonmail.com

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