Follow the Silk Road: How Internet Affordances Influence and Transform Crime and Law Enforcement

Ryan Jerde


This thesis studies the changing typology of border-related crime being driven by Internet technologies. Internet technologies are moving elements of crime, understood to be physical, to the digital realm. Drug trafficking, human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and money laundering are some of the crimes being facilitated by Internet technologies. The evolution of crime is so dramatic that a new category, dubbed “hybrid” crime, has emerged and is creating challenges for law enforcement. The goal of this thesis is to identify the challenges of enforcing laws against the illegal movement of people and goods when that movement is facilitated by the Internet.

Criminal use of the dark web, Tor, Bitcoin, and Bitcoin tumbler did not come about in a vacuum. Three pressures made the criminal environment ripe for transformative change. First, strong border enforcement made criminals search for new techniques that could facilitate crime. Second, new Internet technologies became available that could facilitate evolving physical criminal elements into digital elements. Third, as explained by media dependency theory, the criminal public transferred acceptance of online forums and social communities used on the Surface Web to darknet marketplaces, making the new technologies easy to accept. The result was the creation of hybrid crime.

The incorporation of new technologies facilitating crime calls for unique methods of analysis. Affordance theory and the concept of stigmergy are two frameworks not typically used for the study of criminal justice, but that hold promise for analyzing hybrid crime. Affordance theory is a conceptual framework of analysis used predominantly for the study of design.[1] This theory looks to understand and analyze object–action relationships.[2] For design theory, the intended purpose is to design products that function as perceived and desired; for the study of criminal justice, affordance theory can analyze technology (the object) to determine possible actions (the affordance).[3] This type of analysis can help investigators understand individual technologies, predict future criminal uses, and even recognize when a new category of crime emerges. Affordance theory is especially adaptive in dynamic environments like the world of crime and technology.

Stigmergy complements affordance theory by explaining how decentralized groups with causal relationships self-organize even when they have no direct communication.[4] Criminal justice and deviant behavior have a causal relationship: when one of them commits to an action, the other has a reaction. In particular, law enforcement and criminals are part of a stigmergic cycle in which enforcement of crime affects how criminals act and the type of criminal tactics employed influence law enforcement responses.[5] When criminals use new methods, like Internet technologies, law enforcement must adapt by searching for new investigative techniques. The stigmergic cycle of law enforcement and crime dictates that a hybrid crime was created to overcome difficulties in committing border-related crimes using traditional means, but the starting point of the cycle is difficult to determine. This thesis uses affordance theory and the concept of stigmergy as a framework to analyze the Silk Road and Silk Road 2.0 darknet marketplaces. Both marketplaces provide ample information about the challenges involved with enforcing laws against the illegal movement of people and goods when that movement is facilitated by the Internet.

The Silk Road investigation is the best-documented example of how a large-scale darknet marketplace was used to implement Internet affordances to create hybrid crime. Despite successfully identifying and arresting the operator, Ross William Ulbricht, and seizing the Silk Road website, there is no indication that law enforcement successfully overcame the criminal benefits brought about by Ulbricht’s Internet affordances. The dark web, Tor, Bitcoin, and Bitcoin tumbler all performed as Ulbricht had perceived to maintain anonymity. Instead of overcoming affordances, law enforcement was able to use traditional law enforcement and established cybercrime techniques to capitalize on the vulnerabilities created when Ulbricht converted a purely physical crime into a hybrid crime. Law enforcement successfully located digital shadows on the Surface Web that helped them identify Ulbricht.

In contrast, the Silk Road 2.0 investigation shows law enforcement’s success using unconventional investigative methods to overcome anonymity afforded by Tor. The Silk Road 2.0 darknet criminal marketplace was created after the demise of the Silk Road. Two of the operators, Blake Benthall and Brian Farrell, took Ulbricht’s place after he was arrested.[6] What is interesting for this study is that although Benthall and Farrell had a basis for believing in their Internet affordances, as Ulbricht did, law enforcement changed the game by overcoming the anonymity afforded by Tor. After investigating the Silk Road, law enforcement started perceiving certain Internet affordances differently and adapted to them. When dealing with hybrid crimes, they developed response techniques outside of traditional investigative methods. In essence, law enforcement found a way to alter previously understood object–action relationships among Tor, anonymity, and hybrid crime. By relying on non–law enforcement technological expertise from the Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, law enforcement was able to overcome Tor anonymity and identify Silk Road 2.0’s operators.[7] The Software Engineering Institute de-anonymized Tor by executing Sybil and traffic confirmation attacks on the Tor network.[8] This unconventional investigative technique is an example of law enforcement’s adaptability in response to hybrid crime.

Criminals are continuing to rely on Internet technologies to commit border-related crime. This trend shows that drug trafficking has been proliferated by Internet technologies, but other crimes such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and money laundering are also being influenced. The recent AlphaBay and Hansa darknet marketplace criminal cases show how prolific Internet technologies are in the drug trafficking world.[9] Several investigations involving live streaming from the Philippines highlight how Internet technologies are advancing child exploitation crimes. The BTC-e money laundering investigation, in which cryptocurrencies became the new tool for laundering illicit monies, demonstrates unique new ways of committing crime.[10] These examples show a continuing upward trend in hybrid crime, or at a minimum, a trend of physical crime elements converting to digital.

This study identifies several challenges that law enforcement faces when enforcing against border-related crimes that are facilitated by Internet technologies.

To overcome enforcement challenges, this thesis found it essential to first properly label crime to determine efficient and effective investigative techniques, and to facilitate adequate analysis. Along with proper labeling, unconventional analytical frameworks, such as affordance theory and stigmergy, will benefit the study of criminal justice and aid in analyzing hybrid crime. One of the most important recommendations is to change mindsets about technology and crime through training. Law enforcement needs technology training and investigative support from technology experts. Once training is accomplished, smart enforcement techniques can be employed that focus on hybrid crime vulnerabilities and non-traditional enforcement techniques that can overcome criminal affordances. Smart enforcement measures need to be implemented that adapt to the dynamic environment of hybrid crime. Investigative techniques need to be properly matched to criminal vulnerabilities for digital, rather than physical, elements. Some techniques more competently investigate physical objects, and others digital. A primary strategy of smart enforcement should include attacking the level of trust being given to darknet marketplaces as a way to achieve deterrence.

This study found that criminals and law enforcement perceive Internet affordances differently, but that difference has not resulted in a large technology deficiency. Criminals use Internet technologies innovatively, but law enforcement is equally adaptive in its responses. Traditional investigative techniques have been effective against hybrid crimes when used at the time a criminal is transitioning physical elements to digital platforms. Unconventional methods that attack Internet affordances require more technical expertise to achieve, but have a greater impact against criminals. Despite the successes of traditional and unconventional methods, neither has effectively achieved general deterrence.





[1] Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, rev. edition (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, 4–12.

[4] Remi Pannequin and Andre Thomas, “Another Interpretation of Stigmergy for Product-Driven Systems Architecture,” Journal of Intelligence Manufacturing 23 (2012): 2589.

[5] Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez, “Stigmergy at the Edge: Adversarial Stigmergy in the War on Drugs,” Cognitive Systems Research 38 (June 2016): 3–5.

[6]United States v. Blake Benthall, Sealed Complaint, 1:14-mj-02427-UA (SD NY, October 29, 2014), 8; United States v Brian Richard Farrell, Complaint for Violation, 2:15-cr-00029-RAJ (WD WA, January 17, 2015), 7.

[7] United States v Brian Farrell, Order on Defendant’s Motion to Compel, CR15-029RAJ (WD WA, February 23, 2016), 1–2.

[8] “Tor Security Advisory: ‘Relay early’ Traffic Confirmation Attack,” Tor Blog, July 30, 2014,

[9] “AlphaBay, the Largest Online ‘Dark Market’ Shut Down,” Department of Justice, July 20, 2017,; “Massive Blow to Criminal Dark Web Activities after Globally Coordinated Operation,” Europol, July 20, 2017,

[10] “Russian National and Bitcoin Exchange Charged In 21-Count Indictment for Operating Alleged International Money Laundering Scheme and Allegedly Laundering Funds from Hack of Mt. Gox,” U.S. Department of Justice, July 26, 2017,

No Comments

Post a Comment