Bitcoin and encryption: a race between criminals and the FBI

Whether it’s gangsters a century ago accelerating in faster cars, or terrorists and hackers in recent decades who have protected their communications with encrypted apps, criminals have consistently used technology to stay ahead of law enforcement.

Last week, the FBI responded with a couple of victories: confiscating most of the $ 4 million bitcoin ransom Russian hackers extorted from a pipeline operator in the United States, and announcing a multi-million dollar transaction. were tricked into using a messaging app secretly controlled by the authorities. More than 800 people have been arrested in more than a dozen countries around the world.

This breakthrough came in part because law enforcement officials learned to take advantage of two fast-growing technologies – encryption and cryptocurrency – that were previously a boon to criminals.

Yet the events have not fundamentally changed the challenges facing authorities in an increasingly digital world, according to former law enforcement officials, prosecutors, historians and technical experts. A global bite is unlikely to stop criminals from using encryption, and may prompt them to go even further underground, according to former officials and experts. And while the FBI has shown it can recover stolen cryptocurrencies, it requires resources that most law enforcement agencies can’t reach.

Ultimately, these cases were the latest iteration of a decades-long exchange of views between criminals and the FBI, in which both sides took advantage of technological advances, be it criminals hiding behind encryption, or investigators using facial recognition, drones. and other mechanisms.

“You have a sharper sword, they have a stronger shield – the greed of the bad guys is always stronger than the reach of the good guys,” said Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A Story of the FBI. The FBI story has been true throughout the history of war. ”

Today, law enforcement is seeking to expand access to digital devices, sometimes buying hacking tools from the private sector and urging lawmakers to give them more options to track down suspects.

“The encryption debate doesn’t end there,” said Joseph W. DeMarco, a former Manhattan federal attorney who has worked on cybercrime for years. “This shows that the police are ready to design accompanying maneuvers to get around the encryption barriers. But the debate about whether these workarounds are adequate or not will continue. “

For the police, the technology isn’t all that bad. In addition to recognizing faces and drones, US authorities are using shot detectors and devices that simulate cell towers to secretly connect suspects to phones and determine their location.

Law enforcement agencies also have an advantage when digital devices fall into their hands. Despite claims from Apple, Google, and even the Justice Department that smartphones are largely impenetrable, thousands of law enforcement agencies have tools capable of infiltrating the latest phones to extract data.

“The police today are faced with a situation where the volume of data is growing rapidly,” said Yossi Karmil, managing director of Cellebrite, an Israeli company that has sold data mining tools to more than 5,000 organizations responsible for collecting data. United States. States. “There are solutions. There are no major data access problems.

It is also easier for police to access data stored in the cloud. Tech companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft regularly share customer personal data, such as photos, emails, contacts, and text messages, with authorities.

From January 2013 to June 2020, Apple said it had transferred the contents of tens of thousands of iCloud accounts to US law enforcement in 13,371 cases.

And on Friday, Apple said it unknowingly released telephone tapes of congressional staff, their families, and at least two members of Congress, including California Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who is now President of the House of Representatives, to the Justice Department in 2018. Intelligence Committee. The call was part of an investigation by the Trump administration into the leak of classified information.

However, interception of messages remained a problem for the police. While criminals communicated through relatively simple channels such as regular phones, email, and text messages, most of them now use encrypted messages, and they don’t.

Two of the world’s most popular messaging services, Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp, use what’s called end-to-end encryption, which means messages can only be seen by the sender and recipient. Even companies do not have access to their content, which allows Apple and Facebook to claim they cannot pass it on to law enforcement.

The frustration of the authorities prompted them to attack small encrypted apps favored by criminals. In July, European police said they had hacked into a site called EncroChat, leading to hundreds of arrests.

This has pushed many criminals to the new Anom service. They had to buy special phones with few functionalities other than an app disguised as a calculator. With the code, it would turn into an Anom messaging app claiming to be encrypted.

In fact, the FBI created Anom. The Australian office and police launched the operation by persuading the informant to distribute the devices to criminal networks, after which they colluded by word of mouth. Three years later, Anom had over 12,000 users.

Police said the criminals were so happy with the services that they stopped using coded language, sending pictures of smuggled cocaine shipments, and openly planning killings. And when the authorities got court permission to monitor Anom users, they were able to easily track their posts.

But when police made hundreds of arrests last week and detailed the plan on press cameras, the ruse was over. The authorities again remained in the dark.

For years, bitcoin and other digital currencies have been the coin of choice for international crime syndicates. The qualities that make cryptocurrencies attractive – decentralization and anonymity – make them ideal for theft, ransom, and drug dealing.

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it using software technologies on the site, not a human editor.

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