So much for the anonymity of bitcoin.
What crypto-currency insiders have long known, but much of the media, regulators, and general public failed to grasp about bitcoin – that it is not actually anonymous, but rather is only pseudonymous and, if you can connect a digital wallet address to an individual, you can track very transaction ever made to and from that account – was demonstrated in stark detail in a Federal District Court in Manhattan this week.
In the trial of US vs. Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old man accused of being the creator of the Silk Road online black market (aka, Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR)), FBI special agent Ilhwan Yum told a judge that he was able to track a series of transactions over a 12 month period in which the seized Silk Road servers, located in Philadelphia and Iceland, sent large sums of virtual currency to digital wallets on Ulbricht’s personal laptop.
This analysis was possible because the FBI arrested Ulbricht and seized his laptop while it was in use, meaning it was not at that moment protected by a password or, evidently, sufficient encryption. Subsequent FBI analysis revealed a series of bitcoin wallets in use on Ulbricht’s computer that had received a total of 3,760 transaction from the Silk Road servers, totaling more than 700,000 bitcoins (BTC), a sum worth $ 13.4 million in total at the respective times of each transaction (many of which occurred before bitcoin’s 2013 price appreciation). This is far more exhaustive but similar to analysis completed by Nicholas Weaver, a Berlkey computer scientist, who used publicly available information to trace more than 29,000 BTC traveling from Silk Road servers to Ulbricht’s laptop.
Anonymity has been at the center of the debate about bitcoin’s legality and potential threat to public safety. Many critics have suggested that it could be used to facilitate money laundering, drug trade, and terrorism. This is all true, but it’s no more so true for bitcoin than it is for cold, hard cash. In fact, had Ulbricht received $ 13.4 million in cash over a year as the result of drug trade, it would be even harder to track, after the fact, than bitcoin. Remember, the Feds didn’t recover, or even locate, anywhere near 700,000 BTC under Ulbricht’s control. Rather, they’ve only found roughly 225,000 BTC, 80,000 of which have since been sold in a series of public auctions.
This latest bit of trial evidence, combined with detailed chat logs and a journal found on Ulbricht’s laptop outlining Silk Road’s formation and ongoing operation, make for a rather damning case against the accused DPR. Ulbricht and his defense attorney have tried to pass the blame, pointing the finger at former Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles, among others, while saying that although Ulbricht initially created Silk Road, he transfered control of the marketplace to others long ago. This argument seems to fall apart given that many of the above transfers occurred long after Ulbricht claims he was no longer running Silk Road.
As the FBI proved this week, if you know the name of a bitcoin wallet holder, then the blockchain becomes laid bare in a way that’s better than any traditional forensic accounting examination. And, based on the evidence presented by the prosecution thus far, all signs point to Ulbricht.
In this sense, it seems that the KYC (know your customer) requirements currently being mandated by regulators around the globe should prove to be a sufficient solution to safely embracing the numerous benefits of bitcoin (and Blockchain) technology.
All forms of currency, be they paper or digital, will be abused in some form or fashion by those up to no good. At least with the blockchain, there’s a trail of breadcrumbs to follow after all’s said and done.