Drug-Buying Bot Freed By Police


A computer that automatically bought illegal drugs online has been released from custody by Swiss law enforcement officials. The computer ran an automated bot called ‘Random Darknet Shopper’ as part of an art project.

The artists behind the project had programmed the bot to search for illicit materials on darknet sites. That’s a loosely defined term that’s commonly used to refer to sites that can only be reached over anonymous, peer-to-peer connections. In this case, the artists were specifically targeting sites that act as marketplaces for people wanting to buy and sell goods in a way that’s difficult to trace.

Whenever the bot finds a target product at the right price, it places an order and pays in Bitcoin. It has a weekly budget of $100 of Bitcoins and chooses one product at random to track down each week.

The goods, including untaxed cigarettes, counterfeit Nike trainers, and masterkeys, then went to the artists who put them on display along with the bot (or rather the computer that housed and ran it.)

Swiss officials seized the computer in January along with a collection of the items on display. That prompted the artists to publicly ponder the philosophical issues about whether a bot can commit a crime and face the consequences (and presumably privately ponder the practical issue that they might be prosecuted themselves.)

The officials have now returned the computer with the software intact. They’ve also returned all of the purchased items except for 10 ecstasy tablets that have now been destroyed. It appears that while purchasing and transporting many of the items may have been illegal (in either Switzerland or the seller’s country), the drugs may have been the only item that is illegal to simply possess. Switzerland classes ecstasy as a “soft” drug for which supply and possession is illegal but rarely leads to a heavy penalty.