This Little Bot Was Busted for Ecstasy

Swiss police shut down an art and coding experiment after a ‘darknet’ shopping binge turned up some disturbing finds.

It’s a mad world when a bot buys drugs on the Internet.

Somewhere in the deep, dark depths of cyberspace is a whole world that escapes the reaches of Google and Yahoo search engines or modern browsers. It is there in the deep web, known to those who use it as the darknet, that those who slalom the line between tech-saavy and tech-scandalous lurk. It is where one can buy drugs, arms, and fake documents online. It is also ground zero for perverts, pedophiles, and snuff-film makers. “It’s a pretty crazy place,” writes one anonymous blogger who lurks in the darknet and writes about it. “Please do not take your morals into the darknet, it’s an anonymous side of the Web, people do very sick things.”

To navigate the darknet, one needs special software that is activated by invitation only or, in the case of Swiss art geeks known as !Mediengruppe Bitnik, a special robot to do the dirty work for them. Artist/computer coders Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo developed a robot program called Random Dark Internet Shopper and gave their bot a weekly $100 budget of bitcoins to go trawl the darknet for random booty.

Because everything was automated, meaning no humans chose the merchandise, there was little risk—or so they thought. Their intent was to use what the bot bought for an art exhibit called The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland that ran at the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen near Zurich until last week, when police confiscated the art, including 10 ecstasy pills and a fake Hungarian passport. Police also prohibited the bot from shopping and froze the bitcoin account it used.

The bot also chose counterfeit Diesel jeans, a baseball cap with a hidden camera, and Chesterfield cigarettes, according to The Guardian. One of the vendors sent what’s known as a decoy letter first to see if the buyers were cops. “The Random Darknet Shopper is a live Mail Art piece, an exploration of the deep Web via the goods traded there,” say the artists on their website, which has photos of all the goods the bot ordered. “It directly connects the Darknet with the art space (exhibition space). By randomizing our consumerism, we are guaranteed a wide selection of goods from the over 16,000 listed.”

According to a study by the Digital Citizens Alliance the mastermind of the dark drug markets was Silk Road, until it was shut down by the FBI in 2013. The founders forged a path for the illicit and anonymous underworld drug trade and similar sites continue to function even though the site’s manager Ross William Ulbricht was arrested for money laundering, hacking, and procuring murder, in addition to narcotics trafficking. Shortly after his arrest, Silk Road 2.0 popped up. When that closed down, others appeared or prospered, including Agora, which has now surpassed even the Silk Road sites as the epicenter of the illegal online drug trade. New sites are always deeper in the darknet and harder to trace, according to Digital Citizens Alliance, which aims to educate Internet users and policymakers about the dangers lurking in cyberspace.

The Swiss artists say they take full responsibility for everything their bot purchased, which is an admission made undeniable by the fact that the goods, including the drugs and counterfeit documents, were delivered to a Swiss address in their name. Still, the police allowed the art exhibit to run for three full months, even with the ecstasy pills on display.

A day after it was meant to close, police sealed the exhibit and destroyed the dope, according to Fusion. “We are the legal owner of the drugs—we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code, Smoljo told The Guardian when the exhibit opened.

The artists are fighting to get their bot back. “We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art,” they said in a statement on their site. “Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions.”