Ben's Book of the Month: Review of "Tracers in the Dark"

Posted on by Ben Rothke

Nothing makes a book more readable than when you have a great writer and a compelling story. When it comes to writing about cryptocurrency, perhaps no one is more eminently qualified to write on the topic than Andy Greenberg. Greenberg is a longtime writer for Wired and has written extensively on security, privacy, and information freedom.


In Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency (Doubleday), Greenberg has written a fascinating book on cryptocurrency. While there are countless cryptocurrencies, the book focuses on the most famous one, Bitcoin, the mechanics of crypto, and the idea that while crypto has revolutionized financial services, it has spawned a massive opportunity for illicit activities.


His previous book, Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers, reads like this one. Stories that sound like they are out of a Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum novel but are very nonfiction and reflect a more significant problem facing society.


Bitcoin was initially touted as being completely anonymous. But Greenberg shows how research by cryptography and security researcher Sarah Meiklejohn, then of the University of California, San Diego, and Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis firm, poked holes in the claims that Bitcoin is entirely anonymous. Though many of those who sold illegal goods on the dark web shielded themselves from this perceived anonymity, it was the work by Chainalysis that led to countless arrests.


In the book, two early cryptocurrency figures are highlighted. Ross Ulbricht, known online as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” created and ran the infamous darknet website Silk Road from 2011 until he was arrested in 2013, and Alexandre Cazes, who ran the other infamous darknet site AlphaBay.


Both Ulbricht and Cazes were exceedingly bright yet incredibly arrogant. Despite the myriad security controls they put in place to ensure their anonymity, both were caught using innocuous law-enforcement techniques.


So can there be a completely anonymous cryptocurrency? In 2013, researchers from Johns Hopkins University created Zerocoin, a proposed privacy extension to Bitcoin. That eventually morphed into a standalone protocol named Zcash. Matthew Green, one of the founding Zcash scientists, notes that privacy is a really hard problem.


Green has seen too many claims of future Bitcoin upgrades or add-ons that would solve its anonymity issues; yet another innovation ultimately defeated that in blockchain analysis. He remains hopeful that his Zcash will eventually get there one day.


There are countless benefits to anonymity, both in communications and banking. There is also a dark side to it. One area that has thrived is child pornography. The book details the work of Tigran Gambaryan, IRS Special Agent, and Chris Janczewski of IRS Criminal Investigation (CI), whose work on blockchain analysis resulted in the takedown of a Welcome to Video. That was the most significant cryptocurrency-funded child sexual abuse material (CSAM) marketplace that anyone in law enforcement had ever seen.


The early days of cryptocurrency were filled with the irrational exuberance of the complete anonymity of the cryptocurrency. Many of the founders had equal hubris and were oblivious to the underlying flaws in their cryptosystems. Greenberg tells a fascinating story of some of the key players and how they were ultimately hoisted by their own petard and came crashing down.


The story Greenberg tells so well encompasses a mixture of technology, international law enforcement, financial forensics, greed, and more. While his technology experience is deep, Greenberg has written a remarkable work that will undoubtedly be of interest to those both with and without a technical background. This is a perfect book for a long plane ride, as it is engrossing and hard to put down.


The antagonists in the book were certain that various levels of anonymity would protect them and keep their crypto secure. They added additional layers of control yet still were brought down. This is a fascinating story of technology in general and Bitcoin specifically. And it is one of the most interesting and compelling books you will read this year.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Technology Infrastructure & Operations

privacy data security secure payments & cryptocurrencies

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