A caption entered into evidence by the prosecution in the criminal case against Ross Ulbricht.

​The Google Search That Took Down Ross Ulbricht

The feds tied the defendant to the creation of the site using the simplest of tools.

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Jan 30 2015, 1:27am

A caption entered into evidence by the prosecution in the criminal case against Ross Ulbricht.

Complex technology has been at the center of the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old accused of creating and running underground internet market Silk Road, but a federal agent testified Monday the alleged mastermind was first exposed by a simple Google search.

Ulbricht has admitted to starting Silk Road, but argues he quickly passed it along to others who turned it into the massive criminal enterprise it ultimately became. A screenshot of the search that led to Ulbricht's arrest shows just how careless he was when launching the site, using accounts associated with his personal email to promote it.

The screenshot shows how Gary Alford, a special agent with the Criminal Investigation Unit of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) traced the site to Ulbricht: He simply searched the site's .onion address on the normal internet to see where it was first advertised. Ulbricht had posted in a bitcointalk.org forum under the username "altoid," allegedly in an effort to draw more customers into Silk Road. A post from several months later showed Ulbricht's personal email, rossulbricht@gmail.com in the text of the post, and a later search of the defendant's email confirmed he had, indeed, set up an account on bitcointalk.org under that address.

Since the trial began, tech has been a major hurdle for both sides. The jury has had to learn a variety of high-tech concepts: everything from the deep web and tor browsers to PGP encryption, Bitcoin and blockchains. But it is worth remembering that despite all this, Ulbricht was taken down by something even the least internet savvy person could wrap his or her head around: a Google search.