Yesterday was a good day for crime

Yesterday, a US judge helped the FBI strike a big blow in favor of the next generation of sophisticated criminal organizations, by sentencing Silk Road operator Ross Ulbricht (aka Dread Pirate Roberts) to life without parole. The feedback they gave to the criminal world was as precise and useful as any high-priced consultant's could ever be: until the attention-seeking, increasingly unstable human operator messed up, the system worked very well. The next iteration is obvious: highly distributed markets with less or zero human involvement. And law enforcement is woefully, structurally, abysmally unprepared to deal with this.

To be fair, they are already not dealing well with the existing criminal landscape. It was easier during the last century, when large, hierarchical cartels led by flamboyant psychopaths provided media-friendly targets vulnerable to the kind of military hardware and strategies favored by DEA doctrine. The big cartels were wiped out, of course, but this only led to a more decentralized and flexible industry that has proven so effective at providing the US and Western Europe with, e.g., cocaine, in a stable and scalable way, that demand is so thoroughly fulfilled they had to seek new products and markets to grow their business. There's no War on Drugs to be won, because they aren't facing an army, but an industry fulfilling a ridiculously profitable demand.

(The same, by the way, has happened during the most recent phase of the War on Terror: statistical analysis has shown that violence grows after terrorist leaders are killed, as they are the only actors in their organizations with a vested interest in a tactically controlled level of violence.)

In terms of actual crime reduction, putting down the Silk Road was as useless a gesture as closing down a torrent site, and for the same reason. Just as the same characteristics of the internet that make it so valuable make P2P file sharing unavoidable, the same financial, logistical, and informational infrastructures that make possible the global economy make also decentralized drug trafficking unavoidable.

In any case, what's coming is much, much worse than what's already happening. Because, and here's when things get really interesting, the same technological and organizational trends that are giving an edge to the most advanced and effective corporations, are also almost tailored to provide drug trafficking networks with an advantage over law enforcement (this is neither coincidence nor malevolence; the difference between Amazon's core competency and a wholesale drug operator's is regulatory, not technical).

To begin with, blockchains are shared, cryptographically robust, globally verifiable ledgers that record commitments between anonymous entities. That, right there, solves all sorts of coordination issues for criminal networks, just as it does for licit business and social ones.

Driverless cars and cheap, plentiful drones, by making all sorts of personal logistics efficient and programmable, will revolutionize the "last mile" of drug dealing along with Amazon deliveries. Like couriers, drones can be intercepted. Unlike couriers, there's no risk to the sender when this happens. And upstream risk is the main driver of prices in the drugs industry, particularly at the highest levels, where product is ridiculously cheap. It's hard to imagine a better way to ship drugs than driverless cars and trucks.

But the real kicker will be a combination of a technology that already exists, very large scale botnets composed of thousands or hundreds of thousands of hijacked computers running autonomous code provided by central controllers, and a technology that is close to being developed, reliable autonomous organizations based on blockchain technologies, the ecommerce equivalent to driverless cars. Put together, it will be possible for a drug user with a verifiable track record to buy from a seller with an equally verifiable reputation through a website that will exist in somebody's home machine only until the transaction is finished, and receive the product via an automated vehicle looking exactly the same as thousands of others (if not a remotely hacked one), which will forget the point of origin of the product as soon as it has left it, and forget the address of the buyer as soon as it has delivered its cargo.

Of course, this is just a version of the same technologies that will make Amazon and its competitors win over the few remaining legacy shops: cheap scalable computing power, reliable online transactions, computer-driven logistical chains, and efficient last-mile delivery. The main difference: drug networks will be the only organizations where data science will be applied to scale and improve the process of forgetting data instead of recording it (an almost Borgesian inversion not without its own poetry). Lacking any key fixed assets, material, financial, or human, they'll be completely unassailable by any law enforcement organization still focused on finding and shutting down the biggest "crime bosses."

That's ineffective today, and will be absurd tomorrow, which highlights one of the main political issues of the early 21st century. Gun advocates in the US often note that "if guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns," but the important issue in politics-as-power, as opposed to politics-as-cultural-signalling, isn't guns (or at least not the kind of guns somebody without a friend in the Pentagon can buy): If the middle class and the civil society doesn't learn to leverage advanced autonomous distributed logistical networks, only the rich and the criminals will leverage advanced autonomous distributed logistical networks. And if you think things are going badly now...