‘Tracers in the Dark’ presents a fun crime story — and lesson in privacy
On its surface, Andy Greenburg’s new book, Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency, is a standard crime story. Fans of true crime podcasts will enjoy the crypto version and get a seat in the Federal Bureau of Investigation van as United States federal agents track down criminals through their crypto transactions.
The first story recounted is that of a crooked Drug Enforcement Agency agent who stole funds from the online drug market Silk Road. It also addresses the hunt for Dread Pirate Roberts, aka Ross Ulbricht — Silk Road’s founder.
Ross’ operational security was pretty good. He used Tor for everything. He used an encrypted laptop that locked itself when it was closed. He didn’t share personal details. But in privacy, all it takes is one mistake. He was ultimately undone by one small slipup on an online forum when he first started Silk Road.
The takedown of AlphaBay was an even more sophisticated operation, told through a combination of standard investigative techniques that also harnessed evolving tools developed by crypto forensics firms including Chainalysis and Elliptic. I won’t ruin the ending to that amazing tale in this review.
According to Chainalysis data, Silk Road accounted for nearly 20% of all Bitcoin activity at its peak in 2013. Silk Road conducted over $435M worth of transactions, peaking at $40M in the month of September 2013. pic.twitter.com/veOdmlb3oe
— Chainalysis (@chainalysis) November 5, 2020
The book is a fun read as a true crime novel. It’s also a useful teaching tool for operational security on the web, particularly for new crypto users. The growth in crypto usage in the last two years has been exponential, facilitated via new wallets like MetaMask that became available on phones two years ago.
Since you no longer have to be a tech expert to use crypto, many new users are less sensitive to information privacy than the hardcore techies that dominated crypto in the early days. This book should serve to wake them up to the need for crypto privacy.
It’s important for privacy advocates to study criminal forensics, not because we want to help the bad guys but because the tools employed by the government against despicable people in this book will eventually be applied to all of us by both governments and snooping neighbors alike.
As one example, thousands of people whose crypto was stolen by Sam Bankman-Fried will soon learn one injustice of the tax code in that theft is not deductible against capital gains. If victim information is leaked in the FTX bankruptcy, the Internal Revenue Service will likely use that information to go after bankrupt victims of the fraud to recover capital gains taxes owed on their paper gains. Chainalysis’ tracing technology will help them do it.
And with immutable records of transactions existing on the blockchain, your privacy practices compete against crypto forensic technology yet to be developed.
The book is more sophisticated than the flashy title would suggest. Crypto-native readers will be relieved that the author takes care to explore a second, more nuanced dimension of crypto surveillance technology. He presents the views of privacy and Bitcoin advocates such as Matthew Green, one of the founders of Zcash (ZEC), and Bitcoin proponent Alex Gladstein.
After recounting Chainalysis’ many victories, the author closes by noting the dark side of its technology. A conversation with the founder of Chainalysis is recounted, during which hard questions were asked about work for authoritarian governments. When asked whether he is certain its product won’t be used to surveil ordinary citizens and oppress human rights protestors, the Chainalysis CEO’s responses seem to trail off into obfuscation.
The book dedicates multiple chapters to the diligent work of crypto privacy scholar Sarah Meiklejohn. Her early work developing clustering techniques to trace Bitcoin transactions helped found a thread of crypto forensic and privacy scholarship.
That foundation was the work on which Chainalysis based its early models, and her body of work and others in that vein ultimately helped crypto privacy tools such as Zcash, Monero (XMR) and Bitcoin CoinJoin wallets like Samourai to evolve. The epilogue notes that when offered a position at Chainalysis for her work founding the tools it utilizes, she declined.
She notes her concern over how Chainalysis’ impact wouldn’t be in catching bad guys but instead would be used more by financial institutions to “de-risk” in a steady erosion of financial privacy. She observed, “Then it gets much sketchier, right?”
There’s hope for financial privacy yet. One agent featured in the book notes that the claims of Chainalysis and law enforcement that they can trace Monero don’t hold up. And nowhere is it even suggested in the book that anyone has the technology to trace Zcash-shielded transactions.
J.W. Verret is an associate professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. He is a practicing crypto forensic accountant and also practices securities law at Lawrence Law LLC. He is a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s Advisory Council and a former member of the SEC Investor Advisory Committee. He also leads the Crypto Freedom Lab, a think tank fighting for policy change to preserve freedom and privacy for crypto developers and users.
This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal or investment advice. The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.