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‘Tracers in the Dark’ presents a fun crime story — and lesson in privacy

Want to keep the government from prying into your financial transactions? Begin researching crime and privacy forensics on the blockchain.

On the surface, Andy Greenburg’s new book, Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for Cryptocurrency’s Crime Lords, appears to be a standard crime story. Fans of true crime podcasts will enjoy the crypto version, which places them in the Federal Bureau of Investigation van as federal agents in the United States track down criminals through their crypto transactions.

The first story told is about a dishonest Drug Enforcement Agency agent who stole money from the online drug marketplace Silk Road. It also discusses the hunt for Dread Pirate Roberts, aka Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road.

Ross’ operational security was excellent. Tor was his go-to tool for everything. He used an encrypted laptop that automatically locked when it was closed. He did not reveal any personal information. But in private, all it takes is one slip-up. He was ultimately undone by a minor blunder on an online forum when he first launched Silk Road.

The takedown of AlphaBay was a more sophisticated operation, told through a combination of traditional investigative techniques as well as evolving tools developed by crypto forensics firms such as Chainalysis and Elliptic. I won’t give away the ending of that amazing story in this review.

A more disturbing section describes the takedown of Welcome to Video, a child pornography website where many users simply sent Bitcoin directly from Know Your Customer-compliant exchanges.

As a true crime novel, the book is entertaining to read. It’s also a good teaching tool for web operational security, especially for new crypto users. The exponential growth in cryptocurrency usage over the last two years has been facilitated by new wallets like MetaMask, which became available on phones two years ago.

Because you don’t have to be a tech expert to use cryptocurrency, many new users are less concerned about information privacy than the early crypto pioneers. This book should serve to awaken them to the importance of crypto privacy.

 

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