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The deep state vs. child abuse

April 26, 2022

Andy Greenberg writes a fascinating article in Wired about the IRS takedown of an international child abuse ring on the dark web.  Even though written in a factual style, the descriptions of the crimes and their effects on the investigators are hard to read.

The interesting parts are how the IRS used the Bitcoin ledger as a way to trace and identify the various suspects, how international law enforcement organizations cooperated, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not, and how the courts made an important legal ruling about blockchains. Start with a key fact about Bitcoin, and most other crypto currencies:

Every Bitcoin payment is captured in its blockchain, a permanent, unchangeable, and entirely public record of every transaction in the Bitcoin network. The blockchain ensures that coins can’t be forged or spent more than once. But it does so by making everyone in the Bitcoin economy a witness to every transaction. Every criminal payment is, in some sense, a smoking gun in broad daylight. Within a few years of Bitcoin’s arrival, academic security researchers — and then companies like Chainalysis — began to tear gaping holes in the masks separating Bitcoin users’ addresses and their real-world identities.

The article delves a bit into the practicalities of how that is done. Of course, that was only one part of the technical investigation, which included most everything else those familiar with IT will recognize, from IP tracing to username analysis. Which echoes the old saw about criminals not changing their monograms.

One of the child abusers arrested tried an interesting legal defense:

He [the abuser] argued that his case should be thrown out because IRS agents had identified him by tracking his Bitcoin payments — without a warrant — which he claimed violated his Fourth Amendment right to privacy and represented an unconstitutional “search.” A panel of appellate judges considered the argument — and rejected it. In a nine-page opinion, they explained their ruling, setting down a precedent that spelled out in glaring terms exactly how far from private they determined Bitcoin’s transactions to be. “Every Bitcoin user has access to the public Bitcoin blockchain and can see every Bitcoin address and its respective transfers. Due to this publicity, it is possible to determine the identities of Bitcoin address owners by analyzing the blockchain,” the ruling read. “There is no intrusion into a constitutionally protected area because there is no constitutional privacy interest in the information on the blockchain.”

Exactly right. The law should not try to impose privacy where the underlying technology requires information to be public.

Kudos for the investigators and prosecutors.

And as reminder, conspiracies from Pizzagate to QAnon have only hindered actual work against child abuse.  Real investigation is quite different.

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