How Anonymous Crowd-funders Put a $75,000 Price on Ben Bernanke's Head
The idea of encrypted assassination markets was first floated nearly 20 years ago. Now an actual Kickstarter for killing has gone live.
In 1995, a onetime Intel engineer named Jim Bell shared an idea that would mark him as a person of interest by the FBI, probably for the rest of his life: An anonymous, fully encrypted online assassination market. Back then, Bell lacked the digital tools to make his gambit a reality, but today we have the deep web and Bitcoin. And now, a $75,000 price on Ben Bernanke's head.
Bell, an early crypto-anarchist, laid out his scheme for the market as follows: Someone could create an encrypted online forum where users could make a "prediction" about when some public person of interest was going to die and when. He would include a "contribution" to the cause (and others could, too). Any internet-savvy bounty hunter could check in, and decide to make the kill on that "predicted" date—if they verified that they had indeed been behind the murder by providing an encrypted key before and after the death, they'd walk away with the preset sum. No questions asked, no identities revealed.
The hardline libertarian Bell envisioned the system as a way to keep politicians honest, and eventually drive them out of office altogether. In his manifesto, Assassination Politics, he goes so far as to deem the system downright ethical. He believed government officials were guilty of crimes simply because they subsisted off of "stolen tax dollars." In pushing back against those who argued that his system would lead to the death of innocent, he argued that so as long as someone worked for the government, they were guilty, and morally viable targets.
my speculation assumed that the "victim" is a government employee, presumably one who is not merely taking a paycheck of stolen tax dollars, but also is guilty of extra violations of rights beyond this. (Government agents responsible for the Ruby Ridge incident and Waco come to mind.) In receiving such money and in his various acts, he violates the "Non-aggression Principle" (NAP) and thus, presumably, any acts against him are not the initiation of force under libertarian principles"
And thus, fair game for extermination. The idea was disturbing, and powerful—and as a result, the government hounded him fairly relentlessly. After the publication of Politics, he was arrested in 1997, for using false Social Security numbers and "harassment" of federal officials, the latter being a rarely-invoked charge. He's been in and out of jail ever since.
Bell wasn't the only one on the trail of the assassination market, either. Timothy C. May was perhaps the first to recognize that technology would allow such markets to exist, and touched on them in his work, the Cyphernomicon. After Bell's manifesto, he, along with some other crypto-anarchists, allegedly set about building the infrastructure for the project. According to RPG.net, "Timothy C. May, Carl Johnson and Matthew Taylor later developed the protocols to implement it online to the point that the FBI, Secret Service and Tax investigators investigated their motives for doing so."
It's not hard to see why the feds were nervous. In the event that an untraceable assassination market were to arrive, all hell was liable to break loose. Now, nearly 20 years later, with the rise of a newly ambitious assassination acolyte, presumably anonymous dark web networks like Tor, and the nearly fully mainstream cryptocurrency Bitcoin, it's likelier than ever.
Andy Greenberg published an interview with a pseudonym-bearing engineer going by "Kuwabatake Sanjuro," who has built a real-life, ostensibly functioning Assassination Market website that works much the way Bell envisioned. It's "a crowdfunding service that lets anyone anonymously contribute bitcoins towards a bounty on the head of any government official–a kind of Kickstarter for political assassinations."
There's one little difference—it's even Wild Westier than Bell's idea. In Bell's incarnation, the contributor and killer would essentially make a pact, albeit anonymously, to seal the deal. In Sanjuro's version, the crowd-funding mechanism makes it simple for anyone to add money to the pot. Then, as Greenberg writes, "according to Assassination Market’s rules, if someone on its hit list is killed—and yes, Sanjuro hopes that many targets will be—any hitman who can prove he or she was responsible receives the collected funds."
Sanjuro's ideology is extremely similar to Bell's, though Greenberg reached out and Bell denies involvement. But just look at the ideology listed on the Assassination Market's website. In the FAQ section, Sanjuro explains who's eligible for extermination: "I'll allow anything that has a good reason," he says. "Bad reasons include doctors for performing abortions and Justin Bieber for making annoying music. The person should have wronged someone in some way related to the previous question. Politicians, bureaucrats, regulators and lobbyists are accepted without question."
Once again, there's a thread of extreme crypto-anarchism; work in the government, and you deserve to die. As an explanation for why he undertook the project, Sanjuro lists "a deep-rooted hate against oppressive regimes. This is a response to the surveillance scandals that took place in the summer of 2013."
Currently, there are six people marked for death: Jyrki Tapani Katainen, the prime minister of Finland; François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande, the president of France; "Barack Hussein Obama II"; Ben Shalom Bernanke; the NSA director Keith Brian Alexander; and James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence.
Pledges have already been made, too. By far the highest bounty is on Bernanke, with 124 bitcoin on his head. With today's exchange rate, that comes out to a value of $75,000 USD. That is now essentially a price on Bernanke's head, if any users are convinced enough by Sanjuro's twisted gambit to pull the trigger. And Sanjuro hopes it's just the beginning. He's awaiting a user-generated list of murder subjects—just input your own into the text box like so, and you'll have done your part to instigate a conspiracy to kill. Here's what instigating a murder looks like in the age of Kickstarter:
Make sure to include "who he/she is, why he/she deserves to die." This, so far, includes transgressions like Kaitanen's causing Finland's national debt to increase or Obama's "having continued or expanded on the failed policies of his predecessor."
And here is the complete reason that Ben Bernanke, Assassination Market target #1 is marked for death: "Bernanke is an American economist and currently chairman of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States. During his tenure as chairman, Bernanke has overseen the Federal Reserve's response to the late-2000s financial crisis."
Sanjuro insists that his site is fully encrypted, and actions taken there entirely untraceable. Ross Ulbricht said much the same thing of the Silk Road, however, and the FBI has shown that it can penetrate the Tor network on more than one occasion. And in the insane event that someone actually attempted to carry out one of these killings, attention would no doubt flood the marketplace. Given the previous lapses in the Silk Road's security and the resultant arrests and scrutiny, it seems unlikely that anyone would risk outright murder, even on the supposedly anonymous network.
Still, the idea is a sinister one, and those who've pledged to murder public officials are already probably guilty of a felony—threatening to harm the president and conspiring to murder are serious crimes, obviously—so there are at least some people who aren't squeamish about the program.
Not least its founder, who employs Silicon Valley-speak to tout his product, espousing far-right, free-market ideals along the way. Like many libertarian provocateurs, he argues that if he didn't do this, someone else would. "Killing is in most cases wrong, yes," he writes. "However, as this is an inevitable direction in the technological evolution, I would rather see it in the hands of me than somebody else. By providing it cheaply and accurately I hope that more immoral alternatives won't be profitable or trusted enough. This should primarily be a tool for retribution."
And, like many tech startup chiefs, Sanjuro stresses, above all, the innovation inherent in his approach. "When someone uses the law against you and/or infringes upon your negative rights to life, liberty, property, trade or the pursuit of happiness, you may now, in a safe manner from the comfort of your living room, lower their life-expectancy in return," he says. In Sanjuro's world, assassinations are now easier than ever—and that's a good thing.