Goodbye to the real trip advisor: Silk Road's top LSD review team just retired

A group calling themselves The Avengers were a bit like the Yelp of buying acid online.

Drug users are just like everyone else - they want to know they’re going to get value for money. To that end, it was intriguing to watch the spontaneous growth of product review forums and sites in parallel to Silk Road’s rise.

Most of the reviews took the form of something like Yelp, where customers would review what they’d bought and discuss with other users whether products that were meant to be the same actually had the same effects. Sites like Pill Reports explicitly say they’re concerned with harm reduction, cataloguing the different ecstasy pills found “in the wild”, and giving users a chance to warn each other before they make a potentially life-ruining mistake.

When it came to LSD, a group calling themselves The Avengers took it upon themselves to act almost like restaurant critics, compiling detailed reports about the trustworthiness of Silk Road vendors and the accuracy of their product descriptions. Here’s Adrianne Jeffries at the Verge:

The Avengers were looking for sellers who stole customers’ money or tried to pawn blank pieces of paper. More often, however, they were looking to root out research chemicals that were being sold as acid. Those include DOx compounds (synthetic amphetamines), the 25x-NBOMe or 25x family (synthetic psychedelics that have only been around for the past few years), and ergoloid (a compound invented by the creator of LSD and used to treat dementia). These chemicals aren’t more dangerous than acid; they just have slightly different effects. They are also newer, so their cumulative effects are not well understood.

By the time Silk Road shut down, The Avengers had reviewed 60 vendors, rating them on factors like packaging quality, shipping time, and price. For example, “3JANE” was said to have “extreme Ninja-Spy stealth shipping” for their “quality LSD with appropriate dosages advertised”.

They’ve announced their retirement now that Silk Road is gone, but of course with the nature of the deep web there’s no way of verifying that. We’ve no idea how many people were in The Avengers or their location. We can’t even be sure that they haven’t just moved on to Black Market Reloaded or Sheep Marketplace - the two sites that have gained popularity since Silk Road went down - under different names.

Compared to The Avengers, and Silk Road's forums, sites like Erowid - which has been live since 1995 - offer educational materials about psychadelic materials in a way that is very much rooted in a 1960s-style subculture. Drugs get tied into a New Age aesthetic that, while undoubtedly useful for many, probably also puts off those who aren't as interested in spirituality. Effectively, this older peer-review drug culture was consumed by the more recent web reviews culture we see on sites like Yelp, and people acted like they were buying any other good online.

It's also interesting to see that drugs users managed to spontaneously create a harm reduction system that's a lot more sophisticated than anything you'll see condoned by the authorities in the UK. Right now there's a bad batch of ecstasy going around in the northwest of England, which killed one man at the Warehouse Project in Manchester and hospitalised 15 others. In response, the clubnight organisers have started testing drugs seized inside the venue and broadcasting the results to try and warn others.

Good, but it does nothing to help those who have already taken the drugs before trying to get in, nor for those buying bags of unmarked white powder off dealers inside the venue. This isn't to say that a bunch of people on a web forum are the perfect authority - it would be unwise at best to medical opinions from strangers online rather than a qualified doctor - but it compares favourably to having to buy drugs with a completely unknown history from dealers in the street.

LSD blotters seized by French customs agents in 2008. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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