Dark Web Detectives

‘Tracers in the Dark,’ a gripping narrative about the sinister world of blockchain crime

Some 30 years since the debut of Law & Order, I’m tired of the crime narrative. The form calls for new types of criminals, syndicates I didn’t know existed, kingpins developing new systems to enhance anonymity and avoid capture. That’s why Tracers in the Dark is so compelling. In it, Andy Greenberg, a senior writer for Wired and author of the 2019 effort Sandworm–which I also reviewed for Book and Film Globe–explores the first decade or so of the pursuit of the crime lords of cryptocurrency. Don’t know much about bitcoin? Don’t worry. Greenberg isn’t out to talk deep coding with techies. Tracers in the Dark is an accessible cat-and-mouse narrative about the illegal traffickers of the dark web and those who try to bring them to justice. For those of us not privy to this world, he dramatizes the methods these criminals have employed to try and get away with it, and the approaches that led to their arrest.

Through Greenberg’s journalistic chronicling, we learn that the blockchain at the heart of cryptocurrency is a ledger of letters and numbers, and these digits represent a kind of cipher for online financial deals between users. The perception that you can to pay someone anonymously is the central appeal of this payment system, as opposed to, say, a credit card. I can sell you something, so the theory goes, and you can buy that something with Bitcoin, and neither of us knows who the other is.

Tracers in the Dark

Some of the earliest users of this system thought they could manipulate the blockchain to provide foolproof identity protection, which fostered all kinds of illegal behavior. In retrospect, this seems like magical thinking. If I take a $20 bill and buy some drugs from a dealer up the street, I can reasonably expect that bill not to be traceable to me. The blockchain, however, is a long, unerasable chain of digits composed to chronicle precisely which user, identifiable only by a public key, sent what currency amount to which other user. These transactions are in the blockchain forever. In this sense at least, my street drug deal seems more anonymous than a drug deal paid with cryptocurrency. Digital is forever.

Early investigators from the IRS, FBI, DEA, and many other national and international agencies did the hard work to decipher the blockchain and thereby discover who was making money from these activities. In a few instances, these efforts led to busts of prominent illegal drug and child pornography kingpins. Greenberg is wonderfully meticulous in revealing how specific law enforcement officers turned cyber criminals into real life inmates.

As one example, Ross Ulbricht, a 29-year-old San Francisco resident, operated the Silk Road, the world’s largest narcotics dealership circa 2013, funded entirely by cryptocurrency payments. Ulbricht ran this operation from his laptop at places like the local coffee shop and the Glen Park Public Library, where authorities eventually apprehended him. Ulbricht operated his network under the handle Dread Pirate Roberts, and several law enforcement agents worked to reveal his identity and bring him to justice.

These agents included Tigran Gambaryan, an IRS criminal investigator in the Bay Area, who originally “broke Bitcoin” by tracing cryptocurrency payments to prove someone’s guilt. Also, then UCSD Ph.D. candidate Sarah Meicklejohn discovered a clustering technique that allows users to more accurately reveal who’s paying whom in the blockchain. The use of Meicklejohn’s method was integral to turning Ulbricht into a convicted felon serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht’s laptop and servers at the time he was arrested held no fewer than 144,000 Bitcoins, which doesn’t sound like an earth-shattering amount until you understand that the notoriously volatile Bitcoin market stood at about $30,000 per coin at one point in 2022. Do the math.

Ulbricht is just one of a criminal kingpins who resilient agents brought to justice, thus shining light on the darkest corners of the blockchain. Greenberg’s work offers a detailed and enthralling account of how law enforcement went from being way behind in the cryptocurrency world to handcuffing crime lords and getting convictions.

Most understand the human instinct to shield our most potentially litigious moments from prying eyes. With this in mind, we’d be fools not to recognize transparency as an effective deterrent to our worst capacities. Still, we all want as much digital privacy as possible, or at least I do. People like Ulbricht and several others take advantage of our desire for smaller digital footprints to invent new ways to traffic illegal goods. While there’s nothing new to criminals covering the tracks of their crimes, digital technology and cryptocurrency require new methods for throwing back the curtain on these hitherto covert activities. Without these methods, crimes like drug dealing, money laundering, and child pornography would be way easier to pull off in the digital realm, and without the painstaking reporting of authors such as Greenberg, we’d all remain in the dark.

(Doubleday, November 15)

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Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

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