Lauren Goode: Oh, when I buy something with cryptocurrency, like when I go to my morning cafe and open my MetaMask and I say, “Hey, do you guys take BTC or ETH or GoodCoin?”
Michael Calore: Yes.
Lauren Goode: No, I don’t do any of that, and I really haven’t thought too much about the anonymous outlook on this, although I know that’s a big part of cryptocurrency, right?
Michael Calore: It is. The prevailing thought is that if you use it, people wouldn’t really know what you’re buying or how much you’ve spent or if you’ve even participated in a transaction, but that’s kind of a myth really.
Lauren Goode: Interesting.
Michael Calore: Yes. Do you want to hear more about it?
Lauren Goode: Certainly.
Michael Calore: Then let’s bring our guest.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]
Michael Calore: Hello everyone, and welcome to Gadget Lab. I’m Michael Calore. I am editor-in-chief at WIRED.
Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode. I am a senior writer at WIRED.
Michael Calore: We’re joined again this week by WIRED senior writer Andy Greenberg. Andy, welcome back to the show.
Andrew Greenberg: Thank you to both of you for including me again.
Michael Calore: It’s great to have you back. We’re talking about cryptocurrency again on today’s show, but it’s not quite as you might expect. Andy, you published a book late last year. It is called Trackers in the dark. It is full of stories about detectives who have been able to track down criminals by studying their cryptocurrency transactions. These are people who operated on the dark web, places like Silk Road, AlphaBay, and Welcome to Video, a site where users shared child sexual abuse videos. These criminal enterprises were funded and fueled by cryptocurrency, primarily bitcoin. Now that bitcoin exists, people are using it to buy and sell all sorts of legal and illegal things online. They may not see that behavior as risky if they are doing something illegal because they assume bitcoin transactions are untraceable. That has never really been true, but that belief has persisted regardless. Andy, this myth of anonymity surrounding cryptocurrency is a running theme in your book. How did this myth originate?
Andrew Greenberg: Well, I have to admit I’m part of it in a way, Mike. I wrote the first print magazine piece about bitcoin in 2011 — thankfully, in a way, not for WIRED magazine. I worked Forbes magazine at the time. I was reporting on this world of anonymity and hackers and surveillance, and I came across this new phenomenon. Bitcoin was described to me as a kind of untraceable, anonymous digital money for the internet. I spoke to some of the early bitcoin developers, and even Satoshi Nakamoto, this mysterious creator of bitcoin, had written in this email to a cryptography mailing list that participants can be anonymous, among other things, in this new cryptocurrency world that he or she or whoever they were. So I wrote this first piece in 2011, and I described in this Forbes piece how this seemed to be some kind of untraceable digital money. You could put unmarked bills in a briefcase and send them over the internet to anyone without revealing your identity if you were careful, it seems. Of course I also immediately imagined, just the kind of reporter I am, that this would unlock a whole world of money laundering and online drug deals and, I don’t know, terrorism financing. All of that kind of happened in the ensuing years because it seemed… And it wasn’t just me. Even Satoshi Nakamoto believed that as more flavors of cryptocurrency emerged, bitcoin and cryptocurrency more generally had these anonymous traits. It wasn’t until, I would say, fast forward at least a whole decade, around 2020, that I started to realize how utterly wrong I was in this. How I was not only slightly wrong, but actually 180 completely the opposite of right, which bitcoin actually is whole traceable. In fact, it is much easier to track the money if you can crack and decipher the blockchain with cryptocurrency than even traditional finance. It was actually when I started seeing the Justice Department credit this one company, Chainalysis, a cryptocurrency tracking company, in one announcement after another, I started investigating this world of investigators who were doing this much earlier than I had discovered. I saw that this small group of detectives had in many cases learned how to track down cryptocurrency within law enforcement agencies, and used it to take down one large-scale cybercrime operation after another over the past 10 years. That escalating wave of mass arrests and removals is the story of this book, Trackers in the dark.