by Kieran Smith
Conspiracy theorists delight! According to documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) have prioritized tracking the activity of Bitcoin users as early as 2013.
The Intercept reported on March 20 that Edward Snowden had supplied classified documents, dated March 15, 2013, which indicate that “Bitcoin is #1 Priority” for surveillance.
The NSA has unrivaled access to the information that is carried around the internet and is thought to rely on numerous methods of surveillance to stay informed, including controversial methods like tapping fiber optic cables, and the unwarranted bulk monitoring of emails.
The leaked documents indicate that the NSA may have used their sources to collect intimate details of Bitcoin users that severely undermine the pseudonymity provided by the public ledger. According to the memo, Bitcoin user passwords, device identifiers, and session data has all been collected in the name of surveillance.
Covert Program OAKSTAR Aimed at Bitcoin Users
This strategy falls under the codename of OAKSTAR: a covert communication monitoring programme, originally disclosed in 2013 by Snowden, that utilizes corporate partnerships to let the security agency tap into vast realms of data.
A subdivision of OAKSTAR is MONKEYROCKET, another codename for a surveillance strategy aimed specifically at Bitcoin users. This program is thought to be concerned primarily with counterterrorism but is also involved in targeting users sought for their involvement in a crime, and those involved with money laundering. The scope is broad, but the aim is simple; pinpointing nefarious transactions in order to identify criminal activity.
The MONKEYROCKET program relies on at least one mysterious information source, which the leaked documents reveal to be a “browsing product”: a piece of software that purportedly provides privacy, but in fact opens a hidden viewpoint that lets the NSA peer into the transactions.
This hypothesis was disputed by Professor Matthew Green, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute and advisor to Zcash, who stated that the idea that the NSA would “launch an entire operation overseas under false pretenses” is “pernicious.”
However, he also recognized the efficacy of NSA surveillance, conceding that the NSA’s techniques make privacy features in any digital currencies like Ethereum “totally worthless” for those who are targeted.
Zcash could also be at risk, given that less than two percent of their network use fully shielded transactions; on the other hand, the project does maintain a friendly relationship with the US government. Nevertheless, it is not a stretch to think that the NSA is currently engaged in an attempt to track users of more privacy-focused cryptocurrencies like Monero and Zcash by taking advantage of insecure network connections.
Files Reveal Focus on Bitcoin Months Before Silk Road Bust
The files also reveal how authorities were targeting the Liberty Reserve, a centralized predecessor to bitcoin that was created with criminality in mind, unlike bitcoin. In the following months after Liberty Reserve was shut down, the attention was turned to Ross Ulbricht, the supposed mastermind behind the Silk Road Dark Net Marketplace. His legal defense maintained that the authorities acted illegally by penetrating the Silk Road servers with the help of the NSA.
While it was not clear how the authorities obtained evidence against Ulbricht, many libertarians are concerned that invasive and potentially illegal surveillance methods are being used to build evidence via a process known as parallel construction. The process refers to where hidden, secretive evidence is used to build a case to prosecute someone and providing admissible evidence by referring to the exhibits kept out of the courtroom.
One of the unique selling points of Bitcoin is pseudonymity, which provides a relative privacy; this ability to transact with a degree of anonymity is part of what makes the currency appealing, but the same feature can be a frustration to governments and security institutions. The obscure beginnings, with noone able to pin down who Satoshi Nakamoto is exactly, close connections between the ruling political classes in the US and bitcoin miner Bitfury, among other things, have lead to speculation that bitcoin may have been brought into existence by the CIA and/or other U.S. intelligence agencies.
News of this leak comes as world leaders assemble at the G20 meeting to discuss critical issues, including the potential dangers of cryptocurrency.