Sarah Jeong, a Portland-based tech writer for the New York Times, says she received her first death threat over a piece on bitcoin.
That's why, during an April talk at TechfestNW, she decided to focus on "ancient history"—the four-year-old Silk Road trial, in which Ross Ulbricht ("the Dread Pirate Roberts," as he called himself online) was busted for selling drugs via bitcoin on the Dark Web.
"This was really extraordinary actually," Jeong said. "We're talking about this massive internet drugs marketplace and Bitcoin was its currency of choice. It wouldn't have existed without bitcoin."
Jeong called the Silk Road "the eBay of drugs," and said people would "tumble" bitcoins into fresh online wallets to avoid being traceable. "Money laundering," she said, "but with computers."
FBI agents struggled to catch Ulbricht, whose computer and transactions were heavily encrypted, but finally did so at a public library in San Francisco. Jeong said Ulbricht was using the library's WiFi to conduct drug deals when the FBI snatched his laptop and got access to all his ledgers.
Jeong said that during Ulbricht's trial, he attempted to use the Dread Pirate Roberts plot from The Princess Bride as a defense. "This was his literal defense at trial," Jeong said. "'I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts. I am actually the other Dread Pirate Roberts, and all of these crimes that you're trying to pin on me, the other guy did it. Don't know who he is. It wasn't me'—in the immortal words of Shaggy."
Around $18 million in bitcoin were at stake when Ulbricht's computer was seized in 2014, Jeong said. Now, the same amount of bitcoin would be worth $869 million. "A lot of drugs," she said.
The trial was difficult, Jeong said, because prosecutors had to spend a lot of time teaching people what bitcoin is. At one point in the investigation, Jeong said, DEA agents allegedly catfished the Dread Pirate Roberts into believing they'd carried out a hit on someone, using fake blood and movie effects and were later caught stealing bitcoin with Silk Road credentials.
"This was just a massive shit show," she said. "Blockchain snitched on them."
Ulbricht was eventually sentenced to life in prison. Jeong said the trail highlights "the double-edged sword of bitcoin."
(Listen to her describe the entire humorous trial in detail below).
In other tech realms, such as social media, Jeong said that while there are issues with many platforms and how they harvest and use data it's unrealistic to think that people will delete their accounts.
"There is no ethical consumption under capitalism," she told moderator and WW reporter Katie Shepherd, when asked if using and criticizing social media at the same time is hypocritical.
"This is really more of a systemic issue. This isn't an issue of if you yourself are recycling or balancing all of your carbon credits. This is about making decisions as a collective society. Not making individual decisions."
When asked if there is anything we can be optimistic about in the tech industry right now, Jeong said yes, but there are always flip-sides.
For example, she said studies have found that in medical fields, patient outcomes are higher when doctors follow checklists, suggesting AI can be put to good use.
But, she asked, "Are we going to be pushing patients through without making personal connections in the name of profit? Or, are we going to go for the better outcome for everyone? I would rather it be the latter. But there's always a double-edged sword."