When Bitcoin burst onto the scene in 2009, fans heralded the cryptocurrency as a secure, decentralized and anonymous way to conduct transactions outside the traditional financial system.
Criminals, often operating in hidden reaches of the internet, flocked to Bitcoin to do illicit business without revealing their names or locations. The digital currency quickly became as popular with drug dealers and tax evaders as it was with contrarian libertarians.
But this weekâs revelation that federal officials had recovered most of the Bitcoin ransom paid in the recent Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack exposed a fundamental misconception about cryptocurrencies: They are not as hard to track as cybercriminals think.
On Monday, the Justice Department announced it had traced 63.7 of the 75 Bitcoins â some $2.3 million of the $4.3 million â that Colonial Pipeline had paid to the hackers as the ransomware attack shut down the companyâs computer systems, prompting fuel shortages and a spike in gasoline prices. Officials have since declined to provide more details about how exactly they recouped the Bitcoin, which has fluctuated in value.
Yet for the growing community of cryptocurrency enthusiasts and investors, the fact that federal investigators had tracked the ransom as it moved through at least 23 different electronic accounts belonging to DarkSide, the hacking collective, before accessing one account showed that law enforcement was growing along with the industry.
Thatâs because the same properties that make cryptocurrencies attractive to cybercriminals â the ability to transfer money instantaneously without a bankâs permission â can be leveraged by law enforcement to track and seize criminalsâ funds at the speed of the internet.
Bitcoin is also traceable. While the digital currency can be created, moved and stored outside the purview of any government or financial institution, each payment is recorded in a p...