Followers in the Dark by Andy Greenberg (Doubleday)
The year was 2011. Cryptocurrency was a little-understood innovation, and Sen. Chuck Schumer held a press conference to quell outrage over a one-stop shop for illegal drugs whose technology would make dealers “virtually untraceable.”
The New York lawmaker’s depiction of Silk Road helped create the myth that tech reporter Andy Greenberg comprehensively debunked in “Trackers in the Dark” that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are untraceable.
Greenberg describes the evolution of an entirely new discipline in stunningly vivid real-life policing, following law enforcement officers and programmers who invent and deploy cryptocurrency tracking tools to catch a new type of crime. They dismantle Silk Road and other “dark web” markets and merchants, crypto money launderers, and ensnare the sysadmins and users of Welcome to Video, a major South Korean distributor of child sexual abuse material.
The best of the action is the two-shot drama. Alexandre Cazes, the young Quebecer behind the dark web marketplace AlphaBay, lives large in Thailand. He drives around in a Lamborghini, pulls out $12,000 restaurant bills, and brags about his adulterous sexploitations on the Internet. Another rip-off involved a DEA agent and a Secret Service agent who found themselves illegally enriched while investigating the Silk Road – each on their own.
But Greenberg is more interested in the uber-geeks who are blazing this new trail of digital law enforcement as they track a cryptocurrency called blockchain, where every transaction is recorded. The people carrying out the transactions cannot be immediately identified and often use so-called “obfuscations” to try to hide them. But diligent digital searching and caution prevent many cyber fraudsters.
In the spotlight is Tigran Gambaryan, an Armenian-born accountant turned IRS agent and blue-eyed Danish programmer Michael Groniger, co-founder of Chainalysis, a pioneer in commercial cryptocurrency mining that counts law enforcement and intelligence agencies among its primary clients. . Readers also get to know Sarah Meiklejohn, the daughter of a meticulous prosecutor and an academic pioneer in cryptocurrency tracking.
To his credit, Greenberg deftly explains the technical details without slowing the story down. A writer for Wired, he has done so in other titles describing the onset of major tech events. This Machine Kills Secrets examines WikiLeaks and other actors in the dissemination of politically motivated secrets. Named after Russia’s notorious military hacking team, “Sandworm” describes the rise of cyberattacks.
The liquidation of Silk Road and AlphaBay, in 2014, Mt. ($530 million at the time) and the disturbing “Welcome to Video” bust. Agents doing this work can never see the gruesome footage they collect as evidence and link purchases to customers’ cryptocurrency wallets.
How the Dutch cyber police covertly took over and ran the Hansa dark web market, the patrons of the shuttered AlphaBay signed up in droves. The author also tackles newer cryptocurrencies that claim to be untraceable, including Monero and ZCash.
One tale Greenberg can’t tell well is BTC-e, the biggest criminal cyber coin exchange to date. It’s hardly his fault.
Before its takedown in 2017, BTC-e was the No. 1 facility for laundering proceeds from extortion ransomware groups operating mainly in post-Soviet countries as an exchange. Important details of his relations with the Kremlin are not disclosed. The alleged manager, Alexander Vinnik, He was arrested in Greece and handed over to the United States. A rare Russian cyber fraudster facing Western justice has allegedly laundered more than $4 billion. and is awaiting trial in California.
For all their success in tracking Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the protagonists of Greenberg’s book are often frustrated by the lack of legal cooperation, especially with Russia. None of the powerful tools developed by programmers at Chainalysis and its competitors – Elliptic and TRM Labs – can eliminate a thief beyond the reach of justice.