Cryptocurrency has long fascinated me because it’s mathematics made manifest. Although our economy has long been digital, the rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies codified a cashless digital economy through arcane mathematical precepts that nevertheless gave rise to trillions of dollars of worth—even if that value is volatile at the best of times. It’s not surprising that enterprising criminal minds would try to use cryptocurrency for their dealings, and it’s not surprising that others would use math to uncover those dealings. Tracers in the Dark lays out just what this entails, how it led to successfully busting some big criminals, and what this might mean the future of digital crime, cryptocurrencies, and law enforcement.
Andy Greenberg knows how to tell a story. I have read parts of this book in his articles for Wired, along with similar coverage of cryptocurrency busts. I forgot I had read one of Greenberg’s previous books, about WikiLeaks, and enjoyed it; in retrospect, I see why. Greenberg has a knack for taking complex technological topics, like cryptocurrency, and distilling them into a form digestible even by people with a tech or math background. He cuts through the complexity, rendering it down until you can—as the tracers do—follow the money.
The book comprises five parts. In Part I, Greenberg lays out some of the biggest players: researchers, law enforcement agents, and cryptocurrency business owners who all have a role to play in the events to come. He unpacks the investigation that eventually led to the arrest of Ross Ulbricht and the shuttering of the Silk Road. Part II introduces us to the golden age of Bitcoin tracing. We learn more about how blockchain analysis software, such as that pioneered by firm Chainalysis, became an integral part of investigation by law enforcement like the FBI and
For anyone who enjoys true crime, this book is awash with detail and compelling description. Though Greenberg has obviously chosen to emphasize the actions of certain people, I like that he doesn’t lionize any one person or try to make out anyone to be a hero. These are law enforcement agents, lawyers, etc. who are doing a job. At the same time, he also helps us see how these white-collar crimes are far from victimless. It might seem silly to some of us, spending resources on computer programs and expertise required to chase down sequences of numbers and letters through a vast database (the blockchain) in the hopes of finding out who paid whom. Why not spend that money on something more tangible, like protecting people from violent crime? As Greenberg demonstrates, it’s all connected. The dark web and cryptocurrency have together enabled criminals to more efficiently acquire and distribute everything from drugs to firearms to child sexual abuse material.
The last one was particularly hard to read about, for all the reasons you might expect. I had already read at least the beginning of the Welcome to Video story, and rereading it here, being reminded of the toll it took on the investigators and prosecutors—not to mention, of course, thinking about all the victims of the abuse—well, let’s just say that this book is not for cozy bedtime reading. Greenberg doesn’t shy away from discussing the dark stuff, hopefully with the consequence of helping readers understand that this type of internet crime is not something to be taken lightly. Just because it’s 1s and 0s on hard drives rather than something more tangible, the effects on real people are still devastating.
Tracers in the Dark also changed my mind a bit about cryptocurrency, something I didn’t expect! I have always been very skeptical about crypto ever since I learned about it. Bitcoin and its successors have always sounded like scams and schemes—great if you invested early on but far from the libertarian utopian technology some evangelists seemed to think it could be. As we’ve passed the decade mark and more and more people try to bend blockchain technology to their particular business models, my skepticism and cynicism have increased proportionally.
Yet Greenberg carefully showcases the diversity of viewpoints within the crypto community. Gronager and Meiklejohn have quite different ideas about how and why blockchain analysis should be done, for example—and Greenberg allows them both the space to explain their beliefs. As a result, I started to understand why there are still some “true believers” within the crypto community—people who don’t see cryptocurrency necessarily as an anarchic panacea for state surveillance and control but rather view it as a logical extension of existing monetary tools. While I still wouldn’t go so far as to agree with that idea, I’m more sympathetic to it than the more extreme viewpoints I’ve seen in the past. Greenberg’s diligence in seeking out contradictory opinions helped me confront my own biases and arrive at a more nuanced view of this topic.
You don’t need to understand the math behind Bitcoin to understand the effect it has had on our economy and crime. For better or worse, Bitcoin might not be poised to render fiat currency obsolete, but it’s here to stay in one form or another—and if you’re like me, you might want to see whether your pension fund invested in a cryptocurrency exchange…. Tracers in the Dark is top-notch writing in service of telling a story that anyone interested in crime, computers, mathematics, etc., would do well to hear.