RACHEL MARTIN, host: There really is something exciting about buying stuff online. You pull the trigger, click the purchase- confirmed button. Then comes that unbearable, three- to seven-day wait.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)
MARTIN: And finally, the package arrives. Your new shoes from Zappos, those books you ordered from Amazon - and then there's your LSD.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRAPING)
MARTIN: You heard right. Pot, acid, cocaine delivered right to the front door in a small, inconspicuous envelope from Silk Road. The transactions are anonymous and, the website's owner claims, untraceable - that is, if you can figure out how to get to the website.
Adrian Chen wrote a piece about Silk Road for Gawker.com. It's kicked up a furor on Capitol Hill, where Senator Chuck Schumer called it quote, more brazen than anything else by light years. Adrian Chen is in our New York bureau. Adrian, welcome.
ADRIAN CHEN: Thank you.
MARTIN: So tell us more about this website, Silk Road. How is it even possible that this site exists? I mean, this is all totally illegal, right?
CHEN: It is illegal. And the only way that it possibly exists is the fact that the people on it think that they are completely anonymous. They are using technologies like TOR, and only exchanging in the untraceable digital currency bitcoin.
MARTIN: OK. Break down for us what TOR is.
CHEN: Well, when you use TOR, instead of your Internet traffic going straight from you to the server of the website you're visiting, your traffic goes through a network of different - what they're called nodes. And these are volunteers who have set up their computers to let traffic go through it. And it kind of is a shell game that mixes up the traffic so that it's untraceable directly back to your computer.
MARTIN: And explain to us what a bitcoin is.
CHEN: A bitcoin is a virtual currency that is basically, the digital equivalent of cash. It's completely peer to peer. There are no banks acting as middlemen. A transaction goes right from buyer to seller, just like a cash transaction in the real world.
MARTIN: So how do you even buy a bitcoin?
CHEN: Bitcoins are for sale on all sorts of exchanges. You can use dollars; you can use, you know, most other real-world currencies. And they are buying and selling them on markets online, just like a real-world stock exchange. But there's not a lot of things that you can buy with them so far except, you know, apparently, illegal drugs.
MARTIN: You spent some time navigating the Silk Road website. What does it look like?
CHEN: It looks like basically, a simple version of Amazon. There are user profiles for sellers and buyers. Each seller has user reviews talking about how the transactions went. There are also listings - which you can see a whole category. So there's a psychedelics category, there's a cannabis category, and all those are broken down into subcategories of different, specific types of drugs.
MARTIN: Adrian, a potential consumer, someone who wants to buy a product from Silk Road, they can't just go to silkroad.com, right? That takes that person to a company completely unrelated to this.
CHEN: Right. Silk Road is only accessible through TOR. And to access TOR, you can download a browser plug-in. It takes a little bit of technical skill but basically, anybody can do it.
MARTIN: And did you actually try to make a transaction?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CHEN: No. I did not try to make a transaction. I went as far as adding something into my cart just to make sure that that worked.
MARTIN: How does this actually happen? How are the transactions made? I mean, it would seem that once a purchase is made, that it could be traceable.
CHEN: Yeah. That's kind of the Achilles' heel of Silk Road - is that you need a physical address to deliver this stuff to. There's no real guarantee that you're not ordering from a DEA agent.
MARTIN: I mentioned Chuck Schumer earlier, senator from New York. Since your original post, he and a couple of other lawmakers on Capitol Hill are trying to get the federal government to step in and take the site down. How likely are those efforts to succeed? Do they have any traction?
CHEN: It's unclear if they will be able to shut it down. It's going to be a real test of TOR, to see if they can actually preserve anonymity as promised. I think that probably, the likeliest way they would do it is an old-fashioned sting. Set up a fake seller and trick people into buying it.
MARTIN: And what are the people behind Silk Road saying? How do they justify all of this?
CHEN: The interesting thing about Silk Road is that it really is kind of from the same libertarian geek community as bitcoins. They support free trade; they support anonymity on the Internet. And it's a small subgroup of those people who have decided to take it to the logical extreme and use these technologies to basically, create the ultimate free market.
MARTIN: I understand that after your article was published, you actually heard from a member of the bitcoin core development team. What did he have to say about whether or not all of this is truly anonymous?
CHEN: He basically said that if you are doing illegal transactions like this, it's a dumb idea because the feds have a lot of advanced - kind of network analysis technology that they can track you down with.
MARTIN: That's Adrian Chen. He's a staff writer for Gawker.com, and he spoke with me from our New York studios. Adrian, thanks.
CHEN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.