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How ‘American Kingpin’ author Nick Bilton tracked the Silk Road drug boss across the web

Bilton used digital forensics to recreate huge chunks of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht’s life.

Trial Of Online Drug Marketplace Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht Begins Spencer Platt / Getty

For his latest book, “American Kingpin,” journalist Nick Bilton profiled a person who didn’t want to talk to him: Ross Ulbricht, a.k.a. “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the programmer-turned-convict who founded and ran the Silk Road, a notorious online black market.

But as it turns out, Bilton said on the latest episode of Recode Media, he didn’t need to talk to Ulbricht. Like a lot of people, the internet drug boss left a trail of digital “breadcrumbs” everywhere he went — social media posts, Facebook photos and extensive chat logs — which Bilton and a team of digital forensics researchers were able to track.

“We took the chat logs, we took the photos, we took diary entries, all of these different things, and we put together a database where we could cross-correlate everything by time,” Bilton said on the podcast. “I could look at 3:48 pm on Jan. 11, 2012, and I could see what the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ was doing and talking about, what Ross was doing on social media and talking about, and then look for photos that lined up with that. It was amazing how everything came together so succinctly.”

“The detail I was able to get from that was just staggering,” Bilton added. “There were moments I found things that were just terrifying, that you could figure it out. The EXIF data, which is the location data in the photo, would lead me to a girlfriend that — I didn’t even know that person’s name.”

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Bilton told Recode’s Jason Del Rey that many of the Ulbricht associates he reached out to were willing to talk to him, perhaps because a book about his life felt permanent enough that people wanted to ensure the story’s accuracy. But he wasn’t surprised that Ulbricht himself didn’t play ball.

“He won’t talk to anyone,” Bilton said. “He’s in the appeal process, and probably will be for many, many years. But I also didn’t necessarily want to talk to him. I don’t think anything he would have told me would have been accurate, or the truth. He’s not going to come out and say, ‘Okay, Nick, let me tell you about the time I ordered a hit on someone.’”

“I could have spent a hundred hours with Ross and I wouldn’t have gotten the information that I got out of those chat logs,” he added.

Ulbricht was convicted in 2015 and is currently serving a life sentence in New York. “American Kingpin” went on sale earlier this week.

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