Ross Ulbricht was condemned to two life sentences plus 40 years for operating the darknet market website Silk Road. Here’s an interview his mother gave me.
One of the topics I have been interested in for many years is the use of encryption by criminals. On this blog, I mainly write about paper-and-pencil methods that played a role in criminal cases, but computer-based encryption employed by criminals interests me as well. Over the years I have found over 70 true crime stories that involve the use of TrueCrypt, VeraCrypt, PGP or a similar tool. It has proven extremely difficult for the police to decipher data encrypted this way.
Ross Ulbricht and Silk road
Among the criminal cases involving modern cryptology I came across during my research is the one of Ross Ulbricht.
Ulbricht (born 1984) is a U.S. IT expert who created the darknet market website Silk Road and operated it from 2011 until his arrest in 2013.
Though other goods were traded on Silk Road as well (including many legal products), this site mainly became known as the internet’s leading drug market place. Silk Road used bitcoin as a currency.
In May 2015, after a spectacular trial, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to a double life sentence plus 40 years without the possibility of parole.
Meanwhile, Ulbricht has been imprisoned for over seven years. He has a very active supporter in is mother Lyn, who has dedicated a major part of her life in getting her son out of prison. The following picture shows Lyn together with Ross and his sister Cally.
In order to make Ross’s case more popular, Lyn speaks frequently at conferences and has many media appearances. She and her team operate the website Free Ross Ulbricht, which provides information about the case. They have started an online petition addressing the U.S. President to grant clemency for Ross. Meanwhile, over 350,000 individuals have signed. If you want to support Ross, you can sign, too. I did.
Ross Ulbricht also has a Twitter account that is worth looking at (@RealRossU). As he doesn’t have internet access in prison, his friends publish his messages for him.
My article in c’t
It soon became clear to me that Ulbricht’s story was a dramatic one and that the cryptology involved was not really the interesting part. In my view, the penalty Ulbricht received is extremely hard and unjustified. In Germany, he might have been sentenced to ten years in prison with a good chance to be released after seven. A double life sentence plus 40 years is not possibe in the German legal system, and this is a good thing. To learn more about the differences between prisons in Germany and the US, watch this TED Talk.
After I realized that Ulbricht and his dramatic case are not very well known in Germany, I decided to write an article about this story. The c’t, Germany’s leading computer magazine was immediately interested. Among other things, I contacted Ross Ulbircht’s mother Lyn, who thankfully gave me an interview.
Earlier this week, my article about Ulbricht and Silk Road was published in the c’t RETRO, a special edition of the c’t.
To my regret, the editorial staff has condensed my original article version and kicked out the interview with Lyn Ulbricht. At least, this gives me the chance to publish the interview on my blog. Here it is.
Interview with Lyn Ulbricht
Klaus: Can you tell us briefly how is Ross doing today?
Lyn: Ross is staying strong. He is a very positive person and always takes the high ground. See his essay on Five Keys to Inner Strength I Learned in Five Years in Prison.
Klaus: What are you doing in order to get Ross out of prison?
Lyn: We need to convince President Trump to commute Ross’ sentence and we need to get his attention. One way is the clemency petition, which now has over 1/4 million signers and is the second largest clemency petition on Change.org. You don’t have to be American to sign it, this is a worldwide effort, so we hope people in Germany will help. Ross supporters are also going to Trump rallies to get his attention for Ross.
Klaus: Can you tell us about your and Ross’ social media activities (e.g., on Facebook and Twitter)?
Lyn: Ross sends his messages by mail to someone close to the family and they post for him. They are all Ross’ words. It is a good way to get a sense of who Ross really is and it lets him communicate.
Klaus: The surname “Ulbricht” sounds German. Does Ross have ancestors from Germany?
Lyn: Yes, Ross’s German ancestors were from Dresden and immigrated to Texas in the 1820s. They were Henry and Herman Ulbricht, two brothers who came to America together.
Klaus: What can people in Germany do to support Ross?
Lyn: Sign and share the petition, donate to our Freedom Fund, spread the word on social media, or help us directly. People can contact us at email@example.com.
Klaus: While many Germans criticize the USA for still having the death penalty, most of them are not aware of the wide-spread “life without parole” punishment in the United States. Do you think politicians, the press, and human rights groups in Germany should pay more attention of this topic?
Lyn: Yes, because as Ross says, it is a death sentence. It just takes longer.
Public pressure needed
I hope that my article will make Ross Ulbricht’s case in Germany more popular. Public pressure, even when it comes form another country, might help to reduce Ross’s punishment, which is in my view far too severe.
Further reading: Encrypted letters from a Brazilian criminal organization