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.

Source: Lyn 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.

Source: screenshot

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.

Source: Lyn Ulbricht

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.

Source: Schmeh

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 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

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


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Kommentare (8)

  1. #1 Gert Brantner
    24. Oktober 2020

    I read about that case before. For obvious reasons I signed the petition.

  2. #2 Klaus Schmeh
    25. Oktober 2020

    Bart Wenmeckers via Facebook:
    I am surprised he got such a long sentence. Isn’t just ebay with a few less rules?

  3. #3 Klaus Schmeh
    26. Oktober 2020

    David Oranchak via Facebook:
    Apparently he did more than create ebay with a few less rules: He was convicted of money laundering, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics.

  4. #4 Klaus Schmeh
    26. Oktober 2020

    Bart Wenmeckers via Facebook:
    David Oranchak, good point but aren’t the conspiracy charges based on him knowing of others doing this via his platform and potentially gaining from it via commissions? Or were they of his doing?
    So far it reminds me of a large but similar story with the Kim dotcom case and megaupload saga that unrolled here in nz driven from the USA. they basically operated a file storage locker site (early day Google drive) and the gained financially on the downloads via advertising or site membership. A number of users where using it to pirate games and movie etc but they ended up having a bad day. The CEO is not normal but some his developers were arrested also which i thought was a bit on the nose. I think they are still waiting to be extradited to the usa not 100% sure

  5. #5 Serge
    30. Oktober 2020

    Bart is right, Ulbricht actually did nothing but Ebay did. But that’s the thing. As long as you do something which pleases the organised state crime, as they can rob taxes from you, they are fine with it. Once you are doing the same thing without giving them all your money and let the surveil you they charge you for money laundering and conspiracy to absurd penalties, despite you have done nothing different than other marketplace providers.

    Ever seen a city being charged for actions by a vendor on the city’s weekly vegetable market? Never.

    They learned from the Al Capone case and invented money laundering to be able to penalise everybody who takes or transfers money, so everyone of us, for anything they want (Al Capone was charged for tax evasion, never for all those he killed).

    But what’s your point? Should we stand up for Ulbricht because you consider the penalty too high? Because he used encryption to protect himself, which was circumvented using a side-channel, good example on how not to do it? Because a market place provider should generally not be liable for the actions of the vendors on the market place? Because the hacker manifest must be finally used to free the internet from state influence and surveillance? I would agree to most of these but I didn’t understand what your point is.

  6. #6 Christian
    2. November 2020

    I just wanna point out that there is also a documentary available.

    “Deep Web – der Untergang der Silk Road”

    It’s “free” on Amazon prime and you can find it also on YouTube.

  7. #7 Klaus Schmeh
    9. November 2020

    .bernd.das.brot. via Heise:
    Und Uli Höness bekam nur ein paar Monate…

  8. #8 Richard SantaColoma
    8. Januar 2021

    I somehow missed this post the first time around, and became aware of this case through your newer article.

    I read up on Silk Road, and the case, outside of your articles, Klaus. I agree this is an unjust sentence for the crimes, and I signed the petition.

    Thank you for bringing it to our attention.