$3.4B of Bitcoin in a popcorn tin: The Silk Highway hacker’s story

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The place would you conceal $3.4 billion price of Bitcoin? For James Zhong, the best spot was to retailer it on a pc — with its circuitry uncovered — positioned in a used Cheetos popcorn tin hidden in a toilet closet underneath a pile of blankets.

Zhong, now 32, was sentenced to a 12 months in federal jail final month for a hack that occurred nearly 11 years in the past. His sufferer? Ross Ulbricht, the proprietor of the Silk Highway darkish internet drug market the place Bitcoin discovered its first important use case, as an underground forex. Right now, Ulbricht is himself serving two life sentences plus 40 years for his half in working the unlawful market, however darknet markets proceed to flourish.

Considerably sarcastically, billionaire Zhong was caught as a result of a switch of simply $1,000 price of BTC to an deal with he’d used beforehand.

Prosecutors said that Zhong spent lavishly on luxuries. (Zhong’s social media)

Way of life of a crypto billionaire

How a lot is $3.4 billion? One may construct one other Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest tower, positioned in Dubai ($1.5 billion) — and make the successful bid on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” — the most costly portray ever offered ($450 million) — and nonetheless have over a billion left over to buy a sports activities staff, yacht and fleet of personal jets. It’s nearly past comprehension.

BTC computer
The pc containing most of Zhong’s Bitcoin, present in a popcorn tin. (United States Division of Justice)

However Zhong lived within the American metropolis of Gainesville, Georgia, the place round $1 million is sufficient to buy the luxurious four-bedroom lakefront property he referred to as dwelling. In response to some sources, gaining consideration from girls was among the many key motivations of Zhong — who’s autistic and was reportedly bullied in class. Courtroom paperwork trace at his lavish life-style:

“Certainly, within the 51 months earlier than regulation enforcement’s overt search of Zhong’s residences, Zhong dissipated roughly $16 million of crime proceeds, spending lavishly on actual property investments, luxurious merchandise, journey, accommodations, nightclubs, and different bills.”

If his on-line posts are something to go by, Zhong will also be mentioned to have been one thing of a celebration animal, utilizing cocaine on weekends and bragging about being drunk whereas keeping track of the markets. Maybe this comes with the territory of stealing billions from a drug kingpin.

Zhong party
Zhong memed about his occasion habits on the Bitcointalk discussion board.

All this was presumably financed with the roughly 2,900 BTC that the federal government didn’t get well from his theft. Zhong stole 50,000 BTC and transformed his free Bitcoin Money into one other 3,500 BTC. Nevertheless, solely 50,591 BTC was seized.

Silk Highway

The place did all this start? Presumably with a Bitcointalk person named Teppy, who in June 2010 made a publish titled “A Heroin Retailer” outlining “a thought experiment about how a heroin retailer may function, accepting Bitcoins, and ending drug prohibition within the course of.” The publish linked Bitcoin to libertarianism and instructed that this might allow the brand new forex to turn into “actually disruptive.”

It was a cutting-edge idea. “Pizza Day,” which noticed Bitcoin exchanged for real-world items for the primary time — a pair of pizzas for 10,000 BTC — had occurred simply three weeks prior.

Eight months later, in February 2011, Silk Highway opened for enterprise within the hidden again alleys of the online. “To entry the Tor darkish internet, customers have to obtain particular software program,” explains Ethan Lou, an occasional Journal contributor and the writer of As soon as a Bitcoin Miner. He speaks from expertise. Tor, he notes, has many official makes use of for individuals who worth privateness, together with leaking data to the press.

“It’s fairly straightforward you probably have some primary tech know-how. When you get in, you see that it seems just like the web from the Nineteen Nineties.”

Sellers may checklist their gadgets on the market on Silk Highway, and the web site would maintain funds in escrow till gadgets have been acquired by the customer, who may charge the merchandise and vendor. Usually, directors would adjudicate disputes. In months, the location grew to host over 10,000 listings of managed substances, finally processing round 1.5 million transactions. One early person was podcaster Peter McCormack, who referred to as it “Amazon for medication” and advised Journal how he wound up in hospital after three grams of cocaine arrived at some point and he received carried away — actually, in an ambulance.

Authorities shut in

By June, U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin had written to the lawyer basic and the Drug Enforcement Company, demanding they take motion towards {the marketplace}.

A few of these actions have been off-the-books, resembling these by DEA Particular Agent Carl Mark Pressure IV, the “lead spy” who in 2015 was sentenced to six.5 years for varied crimes linked with the case. This included demanding exchanges freeze BTC accounts as a way to withdraw the cash for himself in addition to faking the dying of website administrator Curtis Inexperienced, whom he had truly arrested, as a way to gather cash from DPR, who allegedly wished him useless.

Zhong had autism, and prosecutors mentioned he spent lavishly. (Social media)

The web site got here to an finish on Oct. 1, 2013, when a pair began bickering in San Fransisco’s Glen Park Library. This caught the eye of the close by Ulbricht, who turned his head from the laptop computer he was engaged on. It was a lure. At that second, FBI brokers swooped in from behind bookshelves and grabbed Ulbricht’s laptop computer earlier than he may log off and lock away his 144,000 BTC — the proof he was DPR.

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Ulbricht acquired a double life sentence plus 40 years with no risk of parole. Many within the Bitcoin neighborhood and past have criticized the sentence as unjust, significantly contemplating the nonviolent nature of his crime. FreeRoss, a corporation devoted to advocating for his launch, archives statements by politicians and business leaders talking in favor of his launch. As Lou asks:

“Are two life sentences affordable for somebody who did one thing that’s nonviolent?”

A pirate’s billions

Throughout Ulbricht’s sentencing, the funds earned by the location have been declared proceeds of crime, which means the Bitcoin was confiscatable by the U.S. authorities. The roughly 144,000 BTC discovered on Ulbricht’s laptop computer was now U.S. property.

“Beneath U.S. regulation, authorities can successfully carry a case towards cash or different items and seize them underneath civil forfeiture legal guidelines with out essentially arresting the particular person possessing them. This naturally extends to digital currencies like Bitcoin,” explains Jason Corbett, a lawyer whose agency, Silk Authorized, focuses on cryptocurrencies.

Cheetos, actually? The place else would you retain billions in Bitcoin? (United States Division of Justice)

The federal government disposed of its newfound Bitcoin through a collection of auctions held by the U.S. Marshals Service in 2014. Enterprise capitalist Tim Draper famously bought 30,000 BTC for $18 million. Functionally, the auctions legitimized Bitcoin by eradicating all doubt concerning its legality: How may the federal government promote one thing it considers unlawful?

However among the Bitcoin was lacking, all traceable from the Silk Highway addresses. About 50,000 had been stolen from Silk Highway’s sizzling wallets again in September 2012.

It was not a classy hack. Zhong deposited 500 BTC into the Silk Highway platform, solely to make 5 withdrawals for 500 BTC a number of seconds later, tricking the pockets software program into returning 2,500 BTC to him. This was repeated a number of instances utilizing totally different accounts and growing quantities, netting Zhong “roughly 50,000 Bitcoin out of Silk Highway in just some days,” based on court docket paperwork. On the time, this quantity of Bitcoin was price round $600,000.

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Sudden Bitcoin Money windfall

In 2017, Bitcoin was forked in a transfer championed by Roger Ver and Jihan Wu. This allowed each Bitcoin holder to redeem 1 BCH for every Bitcoin they held.

Many proponents believed that Bitcoin Money was the “true” Bitcoin, however Zhong, writing because the aptly named “Loaded,” took to the Bitcointalk discussion board to disagree. That summer season, he went on to change his 50,000 BCH for 3,500 further BTC. Because the U.S. authorities views the stolen Silk Highway BTC as proceeds of crime, it equally views the BCH later assigned to them as equally confiscatable.

Zhong BCH
Zhong, writing because the aptly named “Loaded” on the Bitcointalk discussion board.

As a decade handed, the worth of Zhong’s stolen treasure grew exponentially into the billions. Nevertheless, with Zhong’s blockchain signature pointing to the misplaced Silk Highway cash, it was solely a matter of time earlier than U.S. investigators took discover. There have been, and doubtless nonetheless are, eyes on the discussion board on the heart of the Bitcoin motion, the place Ulbricht himself had posted underneath the title “Altoid.”

That’s the path that finally led Trevor McAleenan, a particular agent with the U.S. Inside Income Service’s Felony Investigation Division, to rummage by the contents of Zhang’s toilet closets in 2022 in the hunt for “roughly 53,500 [BTC in] Silk Highway Crime Proceeds.” He recovered 50,591 BTC, which, “utilizing a conservative estimate of the bottom spot value of BTC on the date of the search,” amounted to $3,388,817,011.90.

Not a tin pot setup

Although Zhong hid a lot of his BTC in a tin, Particular Agent McAleenan described his setup as subtle, made up of “a number of laptop servers, digital non-public networks, chilly wallets, digital machines, quite a few layers of encryption, and a number of Bitcoin nodes.” Over the primary a number of years following his 2012 heist, Zhong saved his loot on two addresses of roughly 40,000 BTC and 10,000 BTC.

Maybe in an try to make the connection to the hack seem extra distant, he started periodically shifting the Bitcoin — for instance, splitting the ten,000 BTC deal with into 10 addresses holding 1,000 BTC every in 2020.

The lakefront dwelling the place Zhong saved his treasure. $3.4 billion may purchase round 3,600 such homes. (Zillow)

In an obvious try to additional obfuscate the funds, that very same 12 months he “pushed roughly 750 BTC of the Silk Highway Crime Proceeds by a decentralized Bitcoin mixer,” which is software program that successfully mixes cryptocurrency from varied addresses collectively to make it unclear from which supply a last steadiness comes, thereby aiming to interrupt a connection to tracked cash resembling these concerned in Silk Highway.

Whereas technically anybody can use a website like Blockchain.com to comply with transactions — together with Zhong’s — on the Bitcoin chain, it’s price noting that the IRS went past this, utilizing blockchain tracing and forensic software program to string suspicious addresses collectively extra simply. Whereas such software program doesn’t add any new data, it makes deciphering the info simpler.

Feds swoop in

Regardless of his VPNs and encryption and varied makes an attempt to cover the Silk Highway cash, Zhong should have slipped up sooner or later, because the IRS was capable of monitor him by his IP deal with — a novel identifier assigned to every machine that connects to the web. This IP deal with was then matched to data held with Zhong’s web service supplier in addition to an change the place he despatched some cash to be traded, presumably obtained by a warrant requiring these data to be launched.

Zhong’s flooring secure. (United States Division of Justice)

The profitable restoration of the Bitcoin got here all the way down to figuring out the actions of the cash in query and following them to an change the place Zhong had deposited and offered 119 BTC, price someplace within the area of $1 million, in 2019. Regardless of makes an attempt to combine and obfuscate, the cash’ connection to Zhong and Silk Highway was confirmed by a switch of a mere 0.07750842 BTC — round $1,000 — in leftover change that was despatched from Zhong’s account to a Bitcoin deal with beforehand used to maneuver 1,000 BTC of Silk Highway funds.

This implies that Zhong was caught — shedding him $3.4 billion — as a result of laziness in reusing an deal with as an alternative of making a brand new one, or maybe even for worrying about 0.08 BTC when promoting 118 BTC, to start with. The Swan Bitcoin change, for instance, explicitly discourages customers from reusing addresses as a result of “adverse implications resembling diminished privateness and diminished safety,” which Zhong’s case seems to exhibit.

And so, a search warrant was issued and executed about two years later, in November 2021.

“The identical BTC deal with managed by Particular person-1 that acquired change of roughly 0.07750842 BTC in 2019, as indicated within the Alternate data, is also related to a BTC deal with that Particular person-1 used to switch 1,000 BTC that Particular person-1 had unlawfully obtained from Silk Highway,” wrote McAleenan.

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Zhong’s different loot

Along with cash held on a pc, Zhong had different belongings unfold round his home inside a kitchen drawer and a flooring secure stuffed with tightly sure stacks of money. There was additionally a tiny quantity of silver and gold bullion and a set of slightly peculiar cash often called Casascius cash.

Physical bitcoin
The Casascius bodily Bitcoin present in Zhong’s kitchen drawer, making the U.S. authorities an unintentional collector. (United States Division of Justice)

Casascius cash are bodily Bitcoin on which the non-public secret’s hidden underneath a peelable hologram sticker. They’re historic artifacts of the Bitcoin motion relationship again to 2011. Journal’s 2021 piece on the subject declared such cash as “the last word privateness cash, as there’s nothing to affiliate the proprietor with an deal with and they are often traded one million instances with out ever leaving a file on the blockchain.”

“Theoretically, after all, this might make bodily Bitcoin a really engaging solution to launder cash or pay for drug offers.”

Zhong seems to have carried out simply that, successfully buying and selling his red-hot “legal proceeds” for pre-Silk Highway 2011 Bitcoin that seems totally clear.

So far as we all know, nevertheless, Zhong cooperated with authorities and returned all his remaining Bitcoin, an element that performed a job — alongside along with his younger age and autism — in his getting a brief sentence and the extra severe cash laundering prices dropped, which might usually result in a few years in jail.

In Zhong’s case, the federal government appeared way more serious about securing the “legal proceeds” for themselves slightly than Zhong, whose legal exercise amounted to stealing from one other legal.

Had Zhong hacked another dodgy website, it’s unlikely authorities would have been serious about catching up with him a decade after the actual fact. In response to Corbett, wire fraud is the digital equal of mail fraud and has turn into a form of catch-all for prosecutors, as nearly any monetary crime at the moment entails using the web.

“Zhong was sentenced for wire fraud dedicated towards Silk Highway, which is a reminder that fraud remains to be fraud even when dedicated towards a legal enterprise.”

The darkish aspect

Regardless of Ulbricht’s sentencing, the Dread Pirate Roberts might reside on. The title got here from the film The Princess Bride, wherein DPR was not a single feared sea captain however a title handed on from pirate to pirate. True to the parable, Silk Highway 2.0 was launched inside a month of the arrest, working for 2 years till Blake Benthall, a former administrator of the unique Silk Highway, was additionally arrested by the FBI. Regardless of this, not less than two websites calling themselves Silk Highway 3.0 have been quickly once more operational, together with a myriad of comparable marketplaces utilizing totally different manufacturers.

In As soon as a Bitcoin Miner, Lou writes about his expertise visiting one among these marketplaces out of curiosity whereas a scholar. He quickly spent nearly half a Bitcoin — about $100 — to buy a small quantity of LSD, which by no means truly arrived. Naturally, there was way over simply medication supplied:

“Varied marketplaces supplied stolen bank card particulars and passwords, medication and weapons. You can additionally rent somebody to say the suitable phrases to the police so {that a} tactical staff would raid a home of your alternative, a course of referred to as ‘swatting.’ My mates and I even discovered purported assassinations on provide – simply unbelievable.”

In response to Carnegie Mellon analysis professor Nicolas Christin, as a lot as “4.5% to 9% of all change trades” within the early days of Bitcoin have been associated to the darkish internet drug market. Contemplating this, there is no such thing as a denying that the black market was among the many first use circumstances of cryptocurrency, a reality that also fuels apprehension among the many public concerning cryptocurrency. Lou, a journalist, takes a barely extra optimistic view:

“Even when the use case is just not a really good one, I feel it nonetheless is a use case. As they are saying, any publicity is nice publicity.”

Elias Ahonen author at Cointelegraph Magazine

Elias Ahonen

Elias Ahonen is a Finnish-Canadian writer based mostly in Dubai who has labored around the globe working a small blockchain consultancy after shopping for his first Bitcoins in 2013. His guide ‘Blockland’ (hyperlink beneath) tells the story of the business. He holds an MA in Worldwide & Comparative Regulation whose thesis offers with NFT & metaverse regulation.

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