Ross Ulbricht, the man federal prosecutors say is behind the infamous contraband market Silk Road, never smoked, rarely drank, and studied materials science -- at least according to social media accounts posted under his name and usernames.
Ulbricht, a 29-year-old San Franciscan, was arrested Thursday on allegations that he not only ran the anonymous Bitcoin market Silk Road -- beloved by drug dealers and other miscreants -- but that he tried to place a hit through the site. That came as a shock to some of Ulbricht’s friends and acquaintances, who told Reuters and the Verge he couldn't possibly be involved. But browsing Ulbricht’s social media profiles presents a different picture -- a picture of a die-hard libertarian who was obsessed over money, particularly the anonymous currency Bitcoin, and wrote long Internet screeds on the meaning of freedom.
Those interests apparently began as hobbies for the Texas native, who went to high school in Austin, according to his Facebook profile. An Austin Boy Scout troop lists a Ross Ulbricht among its 2002 Eagle Scouts. Ulbricht went on to an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Texas at Dallas and a prestigious fellowship to a graduate program in materials science at Penn State. At Penn State, he worked with the industrial chemist Darrell Schlom and grew “nano-crystals,” a friend wrote on his blog in 2007.
While at PSU, Ulbricht also played drums for NOMMO, an African performance group, and debated for the college Libertarians. He was apparently a guy of eclectic tastes: On Facebook, he alternated scans of his surreal, Guillermo del Toro-esque pencil sketches with photos from camping trips and physics parties. He belonged to a salsa-dancing group at the University of Texas. He also appears to have signed up on the dating site Singles Bee, where a profile matching his username describes him as white, Christian and “very attractive," with little interest in smoking or drinking.
But even amidst all his yoga, camping and partying -- three of Ulbricht’s many Facebook interests -- he apparently maintained a growing interest in libertarianism and Bitcoin, the foundations of Silk Road.
As early as 2008, Ulbricht was quoted in the Daily Collegian, Penn State's student paper, voicing support for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex).
"There's a lot to learn from him and his message of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and what it means to be a free individual,” Ulbricht said.
Ulbricht also posted a lengthy meditation about freedom on Facebook and subscribed to the Youtube channel of the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute. He described, in an abstract personal statement on his LinkedIn profile, his attitudes toward capitalism and economic theory. It sounds a bit like a romanticized description of Silk Road:
I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort.
The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.
Posts written under his username on the forum Bitcointalk.org make it clear that Ulbright was a savvy investor. In June 2011, he wrote that he had $25,000 in cash parked at Mt. Gox, the main Bitcoin exchange, and made $200,000 off a market rally. He claimed to write investing reports for the now-defunct website thefreelance.org. It also appears that he tracked his net worth on the finance site NetworthIQ, where a user that matches his alias, age and state listed $182,000 in assets as early as November 2008, when Ulbright would have been 24. Those included a $165,000 house and nearly $12,000 in cash.
One of his latest Facebook interests? Money.
Judging someone by his Internet footprint is, of course, an inexact game -- so much of social media is posturing that it needs to be taken with a hearty dose of salt. That said, the mere fact that Ulbricht has an Internet footprint is significant. As my colleague Andrea Peterson chronicled in this brilliant post, the feds only caught Ulbricht because he left a trail of social media breadcrumbs across Google+, Youtube and several online forums.
The moral of the story, clearly, is that you shouldn’t use Facebook or Internet-date if you plan to operate a multi-million-dollar drug marketplace someday. Or, alternately, skip the marketplace all together. It seems Ulbricht was doing pretty well before Silk Road.