BLOCKCHAIN, BITCOIN, AND 21ST CENTURY CRIME
Thursday, January 26, 2023
4:30 p.m. — Craft Talk, Standish Room, Science Library
7:30 p.m. — Campus Center West Auditorium - In conversation with Robert Griffin, Founding Dean of the UAlbany College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity (CEHC), University at Albany
1400 Washington Avenue, Albany NY 12222
Free and open to the public.
One of America’s leading tech journalists and senior writer at WIRED magazine, Andy Greenberg presents his new book, Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency (Nov. 2022), “the propulsive story of a new breed of investigators who have cracked the Bitcoin blockchain, exposing once-anonymous realms of money, drugs, and violence.”
The New York Times said, “[An] absorbing narrative… Each key section of the book... unfolds like a compact mystery.” His previous books include Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers (2019), and This Machine Kills Secrets: Julian Assange, the Cypherpunks, and their Fight to Empower Whistleblowers (2012).
Photo credit Joe Pugliese
Cosponsored by the UAlbany College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC), and the Honors College.
Excerpt from Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency
“ON A SUMMER’S day in London a few months earlier, a UK-born South African tech entrepreneur named Jonathan Levin had walked into the unassuming brick headquarters of the UK’s National Crime Agency—Britain’s equivalent to the FBI—on the south bank of the Thames. A friendly agent led him to the building’s second floor and through the office kitchen, offering him a cup of tea. Levin accepted, as he always did on visits to the NCA, leaving the tea bag in.
The two men sat, cups in hand, at the agent’s desk in a collection of cubicles. Levin was there on a routine customer visit, to learn how the agent and his colleagues were using the software built by the company he’d cofounded. That company, Chainalysis, was the world’s first tech firm to focus solely on a task that a few years earlier might have sounded like an oxymoron: tracing cryptocurrency. The NCA was one of dozens of law enforcement agencies around the world that had learned to use Chainalysis’ software to turn the digital underworld’s preferred means of exchange into its Achilles’ heel.
When Bitcoin first appeared in 2008, one fundamental promise of the cryptocurrency was that it revealed only which coins reside at which Bitcoin addresses—long, unique strings of letters and numbers—without any identifying information about those coins’ owners. This layer of obfuscation created the impression among many early adherents that Bitcoin might be the fully anonymous internet cash long awaited by libertarian cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists: a new financial netherworld where digital briefcases full of unmarked bills could change hands across the globe in an instant.
Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor of Bitcoin, had gone so far as to write that “participants can be anonymous” in an early email describing the cryptocurrency. And thousands of users of dark-web black markets like Silk Road had embraced Bitcoin as their central payment mechanism. But the counterintuitive truth about Bitcoin, the one upon which Chainalysis had built its business, was this: Every Bitcoin payment is captured in its blockchain, a permanent, unchangeable, and entirely public record of every transaction in the Bitcoin network. The blockchain ensures that coins can’t be forged or spent more than once. But it does so by making everyone in the Bitcoin economy a witness to every transaction. Every criminal payment is, in some sense, a smoking gun in broad daylight.
Within a few years of Bitcoin’s arrival, academic security researchers—and then companies like Chainalysis—began to tear gaping holes in the masks separating Bitcoin users’ addresses and their real-world identities. They could follow bitcoins on the blockchain as they moved from address to address until they reached one that could be tied to a known identity. In some cases, an investigator could learn someone’s Bitcoin addresses by transacting with them, the way an undercover narcotics agent might conduct a buy-and-bust. In other cases, they could trace a target’s coins to an account at a cryptocurrency exchange where financial regulations required users to prove their identity. A quick subpoena to the exchange from one of Chainalysis’ customers in law enforcement was then enough to strip away any illusion of Bitcoin’s anonymity….
Thanks to tricks like these, Bitcoin had turned out to be practically the opposite of untraceable: a kind of honeypot for crypto criminals that had, for years, dutifully and unerasably recorded evidence of their dirty deals. By 2017, agencies like the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the IRS’s Criminal Investigation division (or IRS-CI) had traced Bitcoin transactions to carry out one investigative coup after another.”
More about Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency
Over the last decade, a single innovation has massively fueled digital black markets: cryptocurrency. Crime lords inhabiting lawless corners of the internet have operated more freely—whether in drug dealing, money laundering, or human trafficking—than their analog counterparts could have ever dreamed of. By transacting not in dollars or pounds but in currencies with anonymous ledgers, overseen by no government, beholden to no bankers, these black marketeers have sought to rob law enforcement of their chief method of cracking down on illicit finance: following the money.
But what if the centerpiece of this dark economy held a secret, fatal flaw? What if their currency wasn’t so cryptic after all? An investigator using the right mixture of technical wizardry, financial forensics, and old-fashioned persistence could uncover an entire world of wrongdoing.
Tracers in the Dark is a story of crime and pursuit unlike any other. With unprecedented access to the major players in federal law enforcement and private industry, veteran cybersecurity reporter Andy Greenberg tells an astonishing saga of criminal empires built and destroyed. He introduces an IRS agent with a defiant streak, a Bitcoin-tracing Danish entrepreneur, and a colorful ensemble of hardboiled agents and prosecutors as they delve deep into the crypto-underworld. The result is a thrilling, globe-spanning story of dirty cops, drug bazaars, trafficking rings, and the biggest takedown of an online narcotics market in the history of the Internet.
Utterly of our time, Tracers in the Dark is a cat-and-mouse story and a tale of a technological one-upmanship. Filled with canny maneuvering and shocking twists, it answers a provocative question: How would some of the world’s most brazen criminals behave if they were sure they could never get caught?