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Title: Assessment of Cryptocurrencies and Their Potential for Criminal Use
Date Originally Written: July 22, 2017.
Date Originally Published: August 28, 2017.
Summary: Cryptocurrencies are a new technology-driven virtual currency that has existed since late 2009. Due to the anonymous or near-anonymous nature of their design they are useful to criminal organizations. It is vital for law enforcement organizations and regulators to know the basics about how cryptocurrencies work as their use by criminal organizations is likely to continue.
Text: Cryptocurrencies are a group of virtual currencies that relay on a peer-to-peer system disconnected from a central issuing authority that allows users an anonymous or near-anonymous method to conduct transactions.
Bitcoin, Ethereum, LiteCoin, and DogeCoin are among 820 currently existing cryptocurrencies that have a combined market capitalization of over ninety billion U.S. Dollars at the time of this assessment.
The majority of cryptocurrencies run off a system design created by an unknown individual or group of individuals published under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. This system relies on a decentralized public ledger system, conceptualized by Nakamoto in a whitepaper published in October of 2008, which would later become widely known as “Blockchain.”
Simplistically, blockchain works as a system of electronic signature keys and cryptographic hash codes printed onto a publicly accessible ledger. Once a coin in any cryptocurrency is created through a “mining” process that consists of a computer or node solving a complex mathematical calculation known as a “proof-of-work,” the original signature and hash of that coin is added to the public ledger on the initial node and then also transmitted to every other node in the network in a block. These proof-of-work calculations are based on confirming the hash code of previous transactions and printing it to a local copy of the public ledger. Once the block is transmitted to all other nodes they confirm that the transaction is valid and print it to their copy of the public ledger. This distribution and cross-verification of the public ledger by multiple computers ensures the accuracy and security of each transaction in the blockchain as the only way to falsely print to public ledger would be to control fifty percent plus one of the nodes in the network.
While the electronic signatures for each user are contained within the coin, the signature itself contains no personally identifiable information. From a big data perspective this system allows one to see all the transactions that a user has conducted through the used electronic signature but it will not allow one to know from who or where the transaction originated or terminated.
A further level of security has been developed by private groups that provide a method of virtually laundering the money called “Mixing.” A third-party source acts as an intermediary receiving and disturbing payments removing any direct connection between two parties in the coin signature.
This process of separating the coins and signatures within from the actual user gives cryptocurrencies an anonymous or near-anonymous method for conducting criminal transactions online. A level of the internet, known as Darknet, which is only accessible through the use of special software and work off non-standard communication protocols has seen a rise in online marketplaces. Illicit Darknet marketplaces such as Silk Road and the more recently AlphaBay have levied cryptocurrencies as a go-to for concealing various online black market transactions such as stolen credit card information, controlled substances, and firearms.
The few large criminal cases that have involved the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, such as U.S. Citizen Ross Ulbricht involved with Silk Road and Czech national Tomáš Jiříkovský for stealing ninety thousand Bitcoins ($225 million USD in current market value), have been solved by investigators through traditional methods of discovering an IP address left through careless online posts and not through a vulnerability in the public ledger.
Even in smaller scale cases of narcotics transactions taking place on Darknet marketplaces local investigators have only been able to trace cryptocurrency purchases backwards after intercepting shipments through normal detection methods and finding cryptocurrency artifacts during the course of a regular investigation. There has been little to no success on linking cryptocurrencies back to distributors that hasn’t involved regular investigative methods.
Looking at future scenarios involving cryptocurrencies the Global Public Policy Institute sees a possible future whereby terrorism devolves back to populist movements and employs decentralized hierarchy heavily influenced by online interactions. In this possible future, cryptocurrencies could allow groups to covertly move money between supporters and single or small group operatives along with being a means to buy and sell software to be used in cyberterrorism attacks or to support physical terrorism attacks.
Cryptocurrency is currently positioned to exploit a massive vulnerability in the global financial and legal systems and law enforcement organizations are only beginning to acquire the knowledge and tools to combat illicit use. In defense of law enforcement organizations and regulators, cryptocurrencies are in their infancy, with massive changes in their operation, trading, and even foundational technology changing rapidly. This rapid change makes it so that until cryptocurrencies reach a stable or mature state, they will be an unpredictable moving target to track and hit.
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