Once a week for several months, a bot created by a group of artist-hackers purchased one item selected at random from Agora, a Silk Road-style darknet marketplace, and had it delivered to an art gallery in Switzerland. In November, the bot bought a packet of ecstasy pills that were hidden inside a DVD box, and last month, it picked a forged Hungarian passport. Who committed a crime?
Random Darknet Shopper bought plenty of relatively innocuous stuff, too: a pair of Nike Air Yeezy IIs, bootleg Diesel jeans, a stash box that looks like a can of Sprite. Its creators, an art collective called !Mediengruppe Bitnik, allotted it $100 worth of bitcoins every week. The purchases were delivered to Kunst Halle gallery in St. Gallen, where they were displayed as part of a deep web-centric art show.
As Marina Galperina notes at Fast Co. Labs, this isn't the first stunt of its kind. Darius Kazemi, something of a legend amongst bot-makers, began a similar project in 2012, but his creation only trawls the drug-free waters of Amazon.
The possibility that machine intelligence might by happenstance decide to purchase enough MDMA for a really fun night out at the club makes things trickier. Forbes' Ryan Calo ponders the implications.
Are these artists liable for what the bot bought? Maybe. In the United States, at least, criminal law is predominantly statutory. We would have to look to the precise wording of the federal or local law and then apply it to the facts at hand. If, for instance, the law says a person may not knowingly purchase pirated merchandise or drugs, there is an argument that the artists did not violate the law. Whereas if the law says the person may not engage in this behavior recklessly, then the artists may well be found guilty, since they released the bot into an environment where they could be substantially certain some unlawful outcome would occur. I presume they even wanted the bot to yield illegal contraband to make the installation more exciting. Wanting a bad outcome doesn't make it illegal (you cannot wish someone to death), but purposefully leaving the bot in the darknet until it yielded contraband seems hard to distinguish from intent.
All of which is interesting in theory. But even if !Mediengruppe Bitnik couldn't be busted for buying the drugs, it seems like you'd have a pretty clear-cut possession case against whomever is running the gallery.