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Bitcoin is a cipher—literally and figuratively. The crypto-currency conjures a William Gibson–esque panorama of dark web Tor servers, masked figures cavorting in Eastern European shipping containers, multibillion dollar South American cartel-laundering operations, gaunt college sophomores picking up Silk Road designer drugs at liberal arts–school mailboxes, and so forth. It’s also an indicator of libertarian Silicon Valley utopianism where everyone pins their identity to the blockchain, eschewing the globalist banking Nanny State and spending the rest of their lives blissfully playing video games on a seasteader colony in international waters.
All this geopolitical intrigue and philosophical gesticulation omits the fact that, in 2016, Bitcoin is a real currency used by normal people. Following last night’s episode of Black Market: Dispatches looking at Bitcoin-driven commerce on the dark web, we’ve interviewed six of those users, most of whom have asked for their identities be kept anonymous. They use bitcoin for buying drugs, selling sex, evading genome-investigation regulations, exploiting supermarket-account hacks, gambling in Las Vegas, and more. Here are some examples of the type of things people use Bitcoin to pay for.
Drugs (and Tesco vouchers)
I’ve been buying Bitcoin for four years and have used it on a variety of dark-web websites. I buy it legitimately from Bitcoin sellers on authorized sites, run it through a few Bitcoin tumblers, and deposit them on the dark-web site I want to purchase it through. It costs a small percentage of Bitcoin to do this, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Law enforcement has gotten sharper in recent years—not like how it was four years ago. The process normally takes a few hours, so I start it at the beginning of the day and try to get it through to the dark web market before postage closes.
When I started buying, it was only £3 per bitcoin—I wish I’d invested more at the time, but I didn’t. I’ve used many dark-web sites, from Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0, Sheep Market, Agora, and now Alphabay. Mostly I’ve been successful—I’ve been scammed a few times, though, but only for small amounts. I mainly use it to buy drugs because the quality and price is much better than buying from a street dealer. I’ve bought ecstasy, hash, cocaine, acid, 2cb, mescaline, and opium, but I’ve also used it to buy cracks for software and £100 worth of Tesco club card vouchers for around £30. — Anonymous, UK
Sex worker advertisements
I manage locations in the sex industry, an industry very reliant on alternative currencies and untraceable forms of payment. For many years, the industry standard for how sex workers paid for advertisements and online services was using prepaid Visa cards that weren’t directly linked to their identity. In the past few years, because of a pretty highly publicized battle between backpage.com and Visa/Mastercard (read more here), a lot of sex workers and industry managers have turned to Bitcoin and other alternative currencies. I use Bitcoin to fund accounts that enable me to put up advertisements for the women who work each day. My boss uses a Bitcoin brokerage firm in Brooklyn—he’s wealthy enough to do that, but for many people in the sex industry, that isn’t possible. Many young, independent sex workers lack the funds, education, and technology to set up Bitcoin for themselves. — Anonymous, New York
I paid $200 to have my genome sequenced by 23andMe, and I was underwhelmed with it. Then I found this website called Promethease—promethease.com—that takes all your genetic data (which, I guess, is a little sketchy) as well as $5 (or the equivalent in Bitcoin); in exchange, you get a zip file with a self-contained web app that presents what associations your single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have with various diseases/traits. The juicy information was more accessible than at 23andMe, and they can get away with telling you things that are more high stakes—even when the science is still incomplete. For example, there are no 23andMe reports for Parkinson’s disease, but on Promethease, I can type in “Parkinson’s” and see that I may have a slightly increased risk of developing Parkinson’s. I take it all with a grain of salt, though—it’d be silly not to. — Anonymous, New York
I got into Bitcoin around 2010, when the price per coin was still under a dollar, and there was no real infrastructure or institutional investment associated with it. I tinkered around with it and was able to mine an entire block of 50 Bitcoins [current value: $28,2795] on my shitty little PC, and I held onto it because I thought it was interesting from tech and political perspectives. Also, pre–Silk Road, there wasn’t anything you could use it for besides weed and alpaca socks.
As the price went up, I started spending it. The first thing I bought was a pizza, and then I bought parts to build a computer from a site called bitcoinstore.com., which shows that you can run a store and sell PC parts cheaply for Bitcoin. I bought acid twice from Silk Road, too. These days, I mostly use it as a really volatile savings account, and for gambling money: There’s a “Bitcoin ATM” inside the D Casino in downtown Vegas, and anytime I go out there, I pull out a couple hundred bucks and gamble with it. — Anonymous, California
My boyfriend got his Fake ID taken in the Hamptons last week, so now he’s ordering one from a site recommended on Reddit that only accepts Bitcoin payments. — Anonymous, New York