Should We Pay Attention To Assassination Markets?

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Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke walks away from the podiuim after delivering remarks September 15, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Forbes' Andy Greenberg has a piece today profiling someone who calls themself Kuwabatake Sanjuro, the founder of the website Assassination Market. 

We mentioned murder-for-hire websites in TLDR #5, but to recap, they're places where strangers can put bounties on the heads of real people, bounties supposedly fulfilled by anonymous internet assassins. Right now, the bounty on Ben Bernanke is at nearly $75,000. Greenberg explains how verification works on a site where the killers and their clients never meet:

Assassination Market asks its killers to create a text file with the date of the death ahead of time, and to use a cryptographic function known as a hash to convert it to a unique string of characters. Before the murder, the killer then embeds that data in a donation of one bitcoin or more to the victim’s bounty. When a target is successfully murdered, he or she can send Sanjuro the text file, which Sanjuro hashes to check that the results match the data sent before the target’s death. If the text file is legit and successfully predicted the date of the killing, the sender must have been responsible for the murder, according to Sanjuro’s logic. Sanjuro says he’ll keep one percent of the payout himself as a commission for his services.

I have to say, I honestly don't know how to write about this story.

The skeptical part of me is pretty sure these markets are a scam. Assassination isn't the kind of service that lends itself to public advertisements or to trusting people based on their online reputations. And the fact that the website specifically promises to go after high-profile politicians adds to its unlikeliness. Viewed in that light, Assassination Markets is just another place where a fool and his bitcoin are soon parted. 

And yet, these kinds of stories - about an enormous but hypothetical idea that will likely never be realized - can get real very quickly. To take a recent example, the idea of the Silk Road, when it was introduced, seemed completely preposterous to me. Yes, it was technically possible for people to buy and sell drugs online. But who, beyond a tiny fringe, would actually use it? Of course I was wrong - the site ran successfully for two years before being shuttered.

Another example: when OTM first interviewed Julian Assange back in 2009, Wikileaks seemed like a big idea that would go nowhere. Bob had a long interview where he pressed Assange on the potential consequences of his "publish everything" ethos.  Producing that interview, I privately wondered whether it made sense to push Assange so hard on the what-ifs of his site leaking possibly dangerous information. After all, it wasn't as if he'd get the opportunity.