A couple of days ago I read what at the time seemed like ground-breaking, exciting news – the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) reportedly secured a court forfeiture order for around 6.000 Bitcoin (or 5.500 according to some sources), deemed to be proceeds of crime.
All major Irish news outlets ran this story, with varying degrees of details:
“A man has been made to forfeit Bitcoin worth €52m by the High Court as part of an investigation into the sale and supply of drugs.
The cryptocurrency was discovered by the Criminal Assets Bureau as part of a garda inquiry.
It is understood that the €52m in bitcoin represents the largest single-value asset ever seized by CAB since it began operating in 1996.”
Indeed, a noteworthy story that creates an aura of a huge success, that puts Irish law enforcement into the global spotlight and that will undoubtedly contribute to the promotion efforts of several bureaucrats within An Garda Siochana and the Criminal Assets Bureau.
But what actually happened and who controls all this Bitcoin?
“The Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) is not yet able to access the €52m in Bitcoin seized as part of a recent drugs investigation as the codes to access the cryptocurrency are missing.”
Source: Irish Examiner
Out of all the articles I read that covered this story, not one of them offered a correct explanation “of the cryptocurrency bitcoin“.
I guess that due to time constraints and the complexity of the topic every author just ran with a copy and paste version of the story, thus perpetuating nonsensical phrases like:
- “units of digital bitcoin”,
- “online money exists in digital wallets”,
- “codes crucial to accessing the money”,
- “the value of the crypto cash will eventually flow back to the taxpayers”
1. Bitcoin is not a physical asset
First of all, you cannot “seize” Bitcoin. At least not in the traditional meaning of the word.
Bitcoin is an internet protocol for storing and exchanging monetary value. It exists purely online and the Internet connection is absolutely necessary to utilise this protocol.
Bitcoin does not have a physical form. No more than other internet protocols, like TCP or SMTP.
I have heard of police officers going on searches and returning with sealed evidence bags containing physical, collectable metal coins with the Bitcoin logo, Bitcoin key rings or random items that had a Bitcoin sticker on them.
So once again, Bitcoin is not a physical asset!
And also, you can’t “print off” your bitcoin and put it into your back pocket…
(but you can print off your wallet seed recovery phrase – more on that later).
2. Bitcoin is not stored on hard drives or USB keys
Every single Bitcoin that there ever was and that there ever will be resides on the Bitcoin blockchain.
Bitcoin cannot leave the blockchain and exist outside it.
The blockchain is a decentralised, fully digital ledger that is distributed across many “full nodes” on the Internet. You can think about the blockchain as this huge, publicly available database that you can copy onto your computer and keep it up to date by keeping this computer online 24/7 – your computer then becomes a “full node” (more information on this is available here).
The purpose of the blockchain is to record transactions and reflect the status quo in terms of who controls a particular amount of Bitcoin at a particular moment.
A common misconception is that by physically seizing somebody’s computer you seize their Bitcoin.
It does not work this way.
Equally, if you are trying to stop somebody from transacting with or moving their Bitcoin, it won’t be good enough to disconnect their computer from the Internet or remove the hard drive.
The only correct, 100% sure way to gain control of the Bitcoin is to gain control of a private key that corresponds with the specific amount of Bitcoin at the specific Bitcoin address that we want to gain control of.
Remember this sentence, as I will return to it later:
“Not your private keys, not your Bitcoin!”
3. A Bitcoin address IS NOT a Bitcoin wallet
3CgXurw1GJvKR3vk6rQMof5dN3rfPzPADg – this is an example Bitcoin address.
A Bitcoin address like this represents a public-facing destination for a Bitcoin transaction.
“Like e-mail addresses, you can send bitcoins to a person by sending bitcoins to one of their addresses. However, unlike e-mail addresses, people have many different Bitcoin addresses and a unique address should be used for each transaction.”
A Bitcoin address can be created using special software made for creating and storing Bitcoin addresses, as well as for holding the respective public and private keys. And this software is referred to as the Bitcoin wallet.
This differentiation can be quite confusing and many people (including myself long ago) wrongly use these terms interchangeably.
Bitcoin address is a singular entity, while a Bitcoin wallet holds numerous addresses and public / private keys.
Before it’s used for anything, so right after the installation, the Bitcoin wallet will generate a mnemonic seed phrase and instruct the user to write it down.
The seed phrase is a sequence of words, like a master pass-phrase; if you control it, you can use it to connect with the Bitcoin blockchain and recover the whole wallet, along with all the private keys to addresses that belonged to the wallet and all the Bitcoin funds associated with them.
So if your computer breaks or your hard drive is suddenly damaged or lost, you can use the paper backup seed phrase to re-create the same wallet software you had, connect to the blockchain and re-gain access to your Bitcoin.
... so to sum up the flawed media statements on this topic:
- “units of digital bitcoin” – Bitcoin is only digital, there is no other Bitcoin. There are no ‘units’ either, however it should be noted that Bitcoin is divisible – the smallest denomination of Bitcoin is a satoshi. It was named after Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of the Bitcoin protocol. 1 Bitcoin equals 100.000.000 satoshis.
- “online money exists in digital wallets” – Bitcoin exists ONLINE on the Bitcoin blockchain, which is a distributed, decentralised online ledger. Wallets hold the private keys that allow a user to control the Bitcoin currently attributed to a particular address. Bitcoin does not reside in a wallet!
- “codes crucial to accessing the money” – there are no codes, access to Bitcoin funds is enabled through controlling the private keys. The whole wallet can be restored from a mnemonic recovery seed.
- “the value of the crypto cash will eventually flow back to the taxpayers” – this is highly questionable and seems unlikely to happen in this case. I will explain why.
Did CAB really seize anything?
It appears that NO, it didn’t.
Unfortunately, it seems that this – “the €52m in bitcoin represents the largest single-value asset ever seized by CAB since it began operating in 1996″ – it simply never happened.
“It’s believed that Collins printed the codes on an A4 piece of paper and hid them in the aluminium cap of a fishing rod case he kept in a rented property in Farnaught, Cornamona in Galway. However, after he was jailed for five years the landlord of the house cleared out his belongings.”
This is unclear, but I am assuming that by “codes” the author here means the mnemonic seed phrases that could be used to restore one or more wallets containing the Bitcoin in question.
If he means passwords or some access / PIN codes to encrypted devices containing local copies of the Bitcoin wallets, then all is not lost, provided that CAB took possession of these devices and will attempt to break the encryption.
This process could take years, depending on factors like encryption algorithm and password strength, but it would be a worthy effort to try recover such a large amount of money – which potentially could grow even larger, if Bitcoin further increases in value.
My understanding here, with absolutely ZERO knowledge of the details of this investigation, is that CAB secured a court order forming a legal basis for the forfeiture of funds deemed proceeds of crime.
There was no seizure of any Bitcoin.
At the moment, the alleged 52 million euro in Bitcoin is just sitting there on the blockchain.
Unmoved. Unfazed. Unseized.
But the CAB officials are waiting in the long grass, should any activity be observed on the suspected Bitcoin addresses in the future.
Should a need arise, the asset forfeiture decision will allow CAB to serve a court order on any cryptocurrency exchange in the world, should any Bitcoin from the suspected addresses make its way there.
And no doubt foreign law enforcement agencies have been notified of the details of each and every Bitcoin address associated with these illegal funds.
This judicial step, as ridiculous as it might sound to decree forfeiture when there was no seizure, was probably necessary and a good call to make.
The Bitcoin wallets containing the funds could be restored if another copy of the same mnemonic seed phrase existed somewhere else, controlled by somebody else.
Or what if the backup paper copy from the rented property in Galway was miraculously discovered by a random bystander?
There is a fishing rod out the somewhere that is more valuable than The Holy Grail, The Amber Room or Aladdin’s Magic Lamp!
But even if the wallets are accessed by somebody, it will be extremely hard to cash in and spend the funds anywhere in the world while avoiding scrutiny from the authorities.