Swiss Police Seize Robot Who Bought Drugs on the Darknet
Today, police in Switzerland seized a robot and its contraband after it went on a Darknet shopping spree. The robot, which was called the "Random Darknet Shopper" and was part of an experimental art exhibit, had been buying items off the Darknet at random for three months, including fake clothes, fake shoes, and occasionally ecstasy tablets.
Darknet is a subsection of the deep web, which contains websites that do not appear in traditional search engine results. It is distinctive for its absolute anonymity for its users; it is an "onion router," which buries its users information under many "layers," or re-routing of their information and data through many intermediaries in order to hide the user's identity and location. By all accounts, the service is mainly used by criminals selling contraband, but also by political writers in oppressive regimes, as well as journalists and bloggers who are communicating with whistle-blowers (Edward Snowden is known to have used the Darknet to protect his privacy while he was sharing information about the NSA).
The group !MEDIENGRUPPE BITNIK created the Random Darknet Shopper as part of their experimental art exhibition. They would give the robot $100 in Bitcoins every week, and once a week the automated bot would go on a "shopping spree," buying one random item and shipping it to the group. The items are then shown in the exhibit "The Darknet. From Memes to Onionland" at the Kunst Halle St. Gallen.
Their official description for the project reads: "The Random Darknet Shopper is a live Mail Art piece, an exploration of the deep web via the goods traded there. It directly connects the Darknet with the art space (exhibition space). By randomizing our consumerism, we are guaranteed a wide selection of goods from the over 16'000 listed on Agora market place."
Most of the items the robot purchased were relatively innocuous, like counterfeit Diesel jeans for men or a Sprite stash can. But it also bought fake passports, and ten tablets of Ecstasy from Germany: "
The group wrote on their website, "Today, we received the 10 Ecstasy Pills which the Random Darknet Shopper bought last week. The pills were vacuum-sealed in aluminium foil and placed inside a dvd case, so they would look like a dvd in a x-ray scan."
Then, after the exhibit closed on January 11, the police immediately intervened, seizing both the robot itself and all the contraband at the exhibit. According to the group, "On the morning of January 12, the day after the three-month exhibition was closed, the public prosecutor's office of St. Gallen seized and sealed our work. It seems, the purpose of the confiscation is to impede an endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited by destroying them. This is what we know at present. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art. We'd also like to thank Kunst Halle St. Gallen for their ongoing support and the wonderful collaboration. Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions."
It's interesting that the police waited until after the exhibit was closed to confiscate the items, although impinging on freedom of artistic expression to any extent is a slippery slope, so that doesn't necessarily justify the police's actions. The events also raised the fascinating question of who is legally responsible when an autonomous robot breaks the law. Swiss prosecutors have not yet decided whether the artists are responsible, but the group took on this issue as well:
"We are the legal owner of the drugs – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code. But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free."