When the first Silk Road and its alleged operator, Ross William Ulbricht, were taken down by the US government just over a year ago, it took some technical mojo to track down the server and its operator. That apparently wasn’t the case with Ulbricht’s successor. According to the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, Silk Road 2.0 was the victim of some old-fashioned social engineering of the most damaging kind. An undercover federal agent was able to join the site's administration team and gather the intelligence that led to the arrest of Blake Benthall—the alleged operator of the Silk Road successor site who went by the name “Defcon.”
The first Silk Road site, like version 2.0, operated as a “hidden service” on the Tor .onion anonymized network. The FBI claimed that it was able to exploit a flaw in a “captcha” feature of the concealed website to obtain Silk Road 1.0's actual IP address and track the server to a data center in Iceland. Ulbricht’s attorneys called the explanation “implausible,” accusing the FBI of unlawfully hacking the server.
However, in its investigation of Silk Road 2.0, the government took a different technical tack. In a statement issued by the US Attorney’s Office about the arrest, a spokesperson said, ”During the Government’s investigation, which was conducted jointly by the FBI and [Homeland Security Investigations], an HSI agent acting in an undercover capacity (the “HSI-UC”) successfully infiltrated the support staff involved in the administration of the Silk Road 2.0 website and was given access to private, restricted areas of the site reserved for Benthall and his administrative staff. By doing so, the HSI-UC was able to interact directly with Benthall throughout his operation of the website.”