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Privacy Tech | Why Bitcoin Is Good for Law Enforcement Related reading: Proposed Bitcoin Rules Could Make or Break User Privacy

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When many people think of bitcoin, they think of the currency. Next they think of criminals, because of Silk Road and other high-profile examples of people exploiting the currency for unlawful purposes.

But for the entrepreneurs, engineers, venture capitalists and, now, bankers who are pouring their time, energy and money into bitcoin-related businesses, it’s the technology underlying the currency that is the real attraction: the block chain.

If we look closely at block-chain technology, we discover that it’s friendlier to cops than it is to crooks. With companies like Goldman Sachs, the New York Stock Exchange and IBM now exploring the block chain’s potential to improve everything from international securities settlement to the emerging Internet of Things, it’s time that law enforcement recognized how it also can help them catch the bad guys.

Block-chain technology uses cryptography to verify and confirm all bitcoin transactions and then records those transactions on a searchable public ledger. That technology has many other applications beyond currency and, among other things, could revolutionize the way people, corporations and financial institutions move money or other assets. In fact, there is a growing recognition, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, that bitcoin is really just the first “app” to utilize the underlying block-chain technology and that there are endless possibilities for it, potentially transforming the way we do business, much like the Internet did more than 20 years ago.

In the early 1990s, the earliest days of commercial exploitation of the Internet, who could have foreseen Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, Expedia, online streaming of movies and TV shows or many of the other Internet applications that are now part of the fabric of our daily lives? That’s where we are today with the block-chain technology—a world of possibilities that most of us can’t even imagine.

However, for the economic potential of this technology to be realized, bitcoin cannot become, and cannot be perceived as, the “currency of criminals.” For that reason, it’s critically important that law enforcement be able to go after those who would use bitcoin to facilitate crimes.

To be clear, bitcoin certainly poses challenges for law enforcement—chief among them is the difficulty of identifying a criminal who is trying to remain anonymous. This problem of attribution—of “putting fingers at the keyboard”—is in no way unique to bitcoin. On the contrary, it’s endemic to investigations of all crimes facilitated using the Internet. Every day, agents and prosecutors have to figure out ways to tie a particular IP address, chat name or email address to a particular human being. That process is made harder when the suspect uses multiple IP addresses or proxies or other anonymizing technologies. Yet agents and prosecutors work tirelessly to overcome those challenges with great success. Bitcoin presents just another variation on that problem.

Contrary to popular belief, the technology that makes bitcoin work has significant benefits for law enforcement as well.

First, having a public, traceable ledger of every bitcoin transaction ever conducted allows law enforcement to “follow the money” in a way that would never be possible with cash. That’s true despite the perceived anonymity of bitcoin; reports of bitcoin’s anonymity are greatly exaggerated. A user’s bitcoin address is just an account number that stays with the user. If you can connect that address to a particular user, you can identify and trace all of the transactions in which that individual has participated using that address. Plus, tools and techniques for making those connections are improving all the time.

In addition, because this ledger of bitcoin transactions is permanent, law enforcement does not have to worry that the data will be unavailable months or even years down the road. Since the ledger is publicly accessible, law enforcement does not have to worry about what type of legal process—subpoena or search warrant—is required to access the data. Because the ledger is borderless, law enforcement can get the data without having to go through a foreign government. That’s especially important now, when the Justice Department is in heated litigation with Microsoft and other providers over whether U.S. law enforcement can use a search warrant to get data that a U.S.-based provider chooses to store overseas or instead should be required to go through a foreign government.

U.S. law enforcement has a long history of adapting in order to pursue criminals who use “new-school” technology to commit “old-school” crimes. They’ve done it time and time again. From pagers (anyone remember those?) to email to social networking to mobile devices, just to name a few examples, law enforcement consistently has had to evolve as new technology designed for legitimate purposes is used to facilitate criminal activity. Bitcoin is just the latest example.

Law enforcement is still getting up the learning curve on bitcoin, although the Silk Road and Carl Force cases demonstrate that even at this early stage, law enforcement has already developed an impressive capacity to follow the (virtual) money using the block-chain ledger. Law enforcement’s capabilities in this area will only improve over time, particularly as new analytics tools are developed.

There will always be people seeking to use new technology to commit crimes—that has always been true. We will never drive criminals entirely off the block chain, just like we will never eliminate crime on the Internet itself. But everyone who wants to see bitcoin succeed—except criminals, of course—has an interest in helping law enforcement continue to make its way up that learning curve and in creating an environment in which bitcoin is not perceived as the “currency of criminals.” Only then can the full potential of the underlying block-chain technology be realized.

3 Comments

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  • comment Cassio • Jul 8, 2015
    Bitcoin is not only a currency. It's a system, a platform and an invention. I was genuinely thrilled to see your article talking about it from a law enforcement perspective. Thanks for posting.
  • comment Kwame • Jul 9, 2015
    Very interesting read!
  • comment Alex • Jul 24, 2015
    You have changed my perception of Bitcoin.  Very interesting read.