Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Silk Road for Dummies

Intro. I've been a happy user of the magic market place for a while, and introduced it to a lot of my friends. Most of them come back to me a few days later asking how to access it, how to set up the tor network, how to get the bitcoins flowing etc. This is hardly surprising -- silkroad uses state-of-the-art security protections that to the less technologically-oriented of us may seem completely over the head. Most of the information available on the internet is geared at people who understand technology.  Having helped a lot of my friends I decided to share the knowledge with the rest of the world in a simple step-by-step format to get newcomers on their feet in the world of anonymous digital marketplaces.

If you found this information helpful, please say thanks in the comments.

Step 1 - get TOR to cover up your tracks

TOR. The magic marketplace is no ordinary website. You can't just type the address up in your browser and have it show up. This is because silk road uses a "special internet" called TOR (The Onion Router) that makes it impossible for anybody to find out who and where you are. Installing TOR on your computer is easy and harmless - you can choose when to use it, and it will not interfere with you using the "normal" internet.

Install TOR. Download TOR for your operating system from the official torproject website. After the installation completes, open the installed application (TorBrowser on MacOS). You'll see a window called "Vidala Control Panel" that shows your TOR connection status, and a new browser window will open. This is the browser window you'll have to use to open hidden websites.

Open a TOR website Any time you want to open a hidden website, make sure that the Vidala Control Panel shows "Connected to the TOR network!", and use the special TOR browser window. You can tell the browser window from others by eye -- it has a little button with an onion next to the address bar!

Does it work already? To test if your TOR installation is working, you can try to open the hidden web TorDir link directory by copying the address of the link and pasting it in your browser window.

Am I using the TOR browser? If you installed the standard TOR installation, your TOR browser will have the "TOR button" installed -- look for a small button with an onion picture next to your address bar. If you can't find it, open the TOR browser from your installation!

.onion or ? Addresses that end with .onion are genuine hidden network addresses and can be opened only with the TOR browser. Addresses with are regular web addresses that you can open with a regular browser. The first are secure, the second are not! When you open a address, you're asking the proxy (an intermediary) to convert your regular non-anonymous request into a TOR network request. Your request will not be fully anonymous!
You can test this yourself. Try to open the hidden-network TorDir (anonymous) in your regular browser and verify that it does not work. Open the proxied version of TorDir (non-anonymous) and verify that it works. Remember it's not anonymous! Now go to your TOR browser and check that both of them work. Remember to use the anonymous one!

Why are the TOR addresses weird? Unlike the normal internet, TOR network addresses are generated randomly and contain exactly 16 letters. This is inconvenient, but the randomness is actually a consequence of the cryptographic security measures -- it guarantees that nobody can forge the address.

Step 2 - find the Silk Road current address

Silk Road Forum. There is no "hidden google" that you can use to find Silk Road. Instead, you can check the official Silk Road forum for the most recent address. The forum is a hidden website, so you will have to use the TOR browser.

Phishing. Be careful with phising websites (websites that look like Silk Road that require you to type your passwords to steal your money)! Always check that you have the true address -- check the official forum!

Phishing. Remember that the true Silk Road website will never ask you for your PIN number on the login page (your PIN is used only to make transactions). Also, the true address starts with "silkroad".

The current address. The current address at the time of speaking is silkroadvb5piz3r.onion. You shouldn't trust me though! This could be a fake address trying to solicit your passwords! If in doubt, remember to check the Official Silk Road forum.

The current address doesn't work. There might be two reasons: the website is down, or you are not using the TOR browser. The Silk Road website has been on and off at times due to hacker attacks, so this could be the reason. Alternatively, remember that it's not enough to just click the .onion link to open it! In order to open a TOR (onion) website, open your TOR browser, and copy and open the desired link in it.

Step 3 - learn how to use bitcoin

What are bitcoins? Bitcoin is a digital currency. It's completely anonymous -- there are no banks, no bank statements, no names exchanged, and no traces left. The currency is protected by complicated cryptographic algorithms that maintain security.

Set up your own bitcoin address - online. There are a variety of ways of doing this. If you don't want to install anything on your computer, you can do this online at no cost at a third-party service. I personally found straightforward to use. After you register, your bitcoin address will be shown in "Linked Accounts" section. You can also make payments from your bitcoin account.

Set up your own bitcoin address - on your own. There are a number of bitcoin software that will process your transactions and create new bitcoin accounts for you. The one I find easy to use is Electrum.

Buy bitcoins. This is by far the most complicated step. Buying bitcoins will require you to set up an account in a third-party service that will sell you bitcoins for real money. Furthermore, it usually either really difficult or expensive to buy bitcoins with a credit card. My choice number one is, where you can link your (American) bank account and buy bitcoins at a market price and with a small fee. Coinbase can also operate as your bitcoin wallet manager.
I have also used where you can set up a payment at a local deposit location, such as CVS or Walmart. The fees at bitinstant are a little higher though, and you need to own a bitcoin address.

Make bitcoin transactions. You can send and receive bitcoins from other bitcoin users. To make a transaction, you will need to know the bitcoin address of whomever you want to send the money to. In particular, if you would like to deposit money into the silk road account, you will need to log into your account and find your private silk road bitcoin address.

Keep your monies together. As a result of trying various deposit methods you may end up with a lot of different bitcoin addresses holding money. I find it helpful to choose a "main" bitcoin address and transfer all of your money into it.

I made a bitcoin transaction but it's not showing up. Every Bitcoin transaction must be acknowledged by many computers in the bitcoin network before it is considered valid (and trustworthy). By design of the bitcoin network, this can take up to one hour, so be patient!

Buy with silkroad

When you are ready to make your silkroad transaction, you will need to transfer enough bitcoins into your Silk Road bitcoin wallet to pay for your purchase and shipment. Once logged into silkroad, click on the account link on top of the page to display your silkroad bitcoin address. Use it to transfer bitcoins using your preferred way (private wallet software, online wallet etc.). Remember to transfer a little more than you need to cover transactions fees and shipping!
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