American Kingpin

Catching the Billion-Dollar Baron of the Dark Web

Title: American Kingpin – Catching the Billion-Dollar Baron of the Dark Web
Author: Nick Bilton
Published: 2017
ISBN: 9780753547007
Purchased from Amazon UK on 7 Dec 2020 for GBP 8.68 excluding shipping (which was GBP 6.29 for a pack of 3 books)

What the book is about:
It starts off with a young quite introverted guy, Ross Ulbricht, studying digital technology (computing), and who is struggling to find his niche in life. He appears to be a fairly talented coder. His privileged upbringing, eccentricities and youthful naivety about libertarianism, drugs, and all that kind of stuff is evident from the word go. An idealist with a fairly benign character. After some failures in transitioning from student to earning a reasonable living, he comes up with an idea. He builds a simple website to try to sell some of the hallucinogenic substances he uses online on the dark net. This starts to work on a small scale and, even if straying into illegality, over a shortish period starts to make a little money. All the while justifying his activities to himself along the lines that this is safer for people than buying the stuff on the streets, and anyway it’s peoples’ right to do what they want with and to their bodies. The long and short of it is this dark web business starts to grow exponentially in both scope, complexity and profitability. Eventually the train is going so fast he can’t or hasn’t the sense or maturity to stop it or get off. Of course the authority heavies such as the FBI and DHS are now paying considerable unwanted attention. But the anonymising technology and methods he uses makes their investigative work very difficult.

Over time, and in the process of amassing a huge ill-gotten personal fortune, he makes a number of seemingly small mistakes and judgemental errors, at both technical and personal levels. These in themselves are a fascinating area to consider, analyse and learn from. His mis-steps, combined with persistent, methodical and technically brilliant investigative work by the authorities, mixed with some old-fashioned good luck and bad luck, depending on the side of the equation in view, make for an exciting read over the last few chapters and bring the matter to the conclusion that is now public record. But the genie has escaped the bottle. To elaborate further might spoil the story-line.

Why Selected:
I like non-fiction books relating to tackling cybercrime, cyber espionage and criminals in general who exploit digital technology to facilitate their criminal activities. It’s also super-interesting to see how the overall plot in books like this mirror the content of the Masters in Advanced Security and Digital Forensics for which I’m currently writing my dissertation.

Overall opinion:
This book ticked all the boxes for me. It also makes a very interesting case study if one wanted to do that, on several levels, such as start-up business, technical, and even a few on a personal level.

Content and Style:
It is well written, fairly jargon-free, in plain english, is quite a page-turner, has great pace and detail. Great entertainment as well as a useful learning experience.

Recommended?
Absolutely – for people with whom the technical genre resonates. It’s not typical real-life crime, very little in the way of gory crime scenes, so probably less attractive to people into that genre.