Benton County sheriffs mine Bitcoin for dark web investigations
As the conversation on the good and bad of cryptocurrency rages, the sheriff’s office in Benton County is way ahead of the talk. In 2017, their unit dedicated to handling cyber crimes decided to venture into the untamed waters of Bitcoin mining. Their interest in the matter, however, was purely out of need and not for wealth creation. In other terms, the office had to try Bitcoin mining after an operation showed them its necessary in cybercrime handling. Olin Rankin, a detective in the department says, “at the time, nobody owned a bitcoin let alone our reluctance to have a bitcoin purchase credited to the credit card attached to the Sheriff’s office.”
In order to be able to fund their operation without incurring the wrath of the taxpayer, an agreement had to be reached. Rankin offered to make the purchase from his own debit card. He acknowledges the unsustainability of the path chosen for the acquisition of the bitcoin. However, he clarifies the choice saying, “we had to find a safer way to buy the bitcoin without getting entangled in any shady practices.”
There are two ways to get the bitcoin currency into your possession. One way is easy but vulnerable. The other can be quite tasking but safe and secure. Rankin attests to the ease of the first method saying, “it can be compared to the three-step process of getting an account at the exchange. Once you have your account, you confirm your identification details and provide necessary bank details. Once bought, the Bitcoin is credited to your online wallet.”
The second option involves using certain hardware to get your hands on the Bitcoin. The process is commonly called mining. Machines involved in the process are rewarded with Bitcoins for performing the difficult calculations involved. According to Rankin, “the mining process is a win-win situation. The network benefits from the machine while the machine also reaps from its work in the network. The miner helps in auditing exchanges done in the network and consequently is paid for the work through bitcoins.”
From the two options, the Sheriff’s office had to make a decision for one or the other. Buying the cryptocurrency directly comes with the risk of handling tainted bitcoins. This option gives no way of knowing the origin of the Bitcoin. It cannot be traced to its origin. Mining, on the other hand, provides newly created Bitcoins for their operation.
Lt. David Undiano, attached to the Criminal Division at the office says, “When Detective Olin approached me with the proposition to employ the services of the bitcoin, we did some research. From our research, we determined the absence of proper policy to guide the use of Bitcoins.” Two major issues ensued from their research. They needed to find ways to manage the coins in a way that ensures transparency as well to keep their coins from the reach of hackers.
“We wanted to ensure the public of the genuineness of the bitcoins we intended to use for our operations. There was no risking the use of dirty currency,” Undiano said. “So we chose to mine them ourselves. That was the safest choice we had so we went for it,” he added.
It then became the department’s official mandate to guarantee that the mining operation would be legal and genuine.
The decision to go the mining path was not the end of their dilemma. Apart from the necessity to assure the safety of the bitcoin they used, they had to find the best way to store the mined currency away from the hands of hackers. Rankin comments, “It is an engaging task to find the right way to keep the coins safely at minimal risk of loss or theft. However, there are a couple of ways to stay clear of all the risk. For our case, we had to pick the best of the best.” Therefore, the Benton County Sheriff’s office went for offline storage because online hackers have no way to gain access to it via the internet.
Following the choice to go with offline storage came the step of determining the kind of miner that would best suit their needs. Luckily for the Sheriff’s office, Rankin had several types of miners which he willingly agreed to lend to the office. Because of their varying specifications and capabilities, it was necessary to put them through a testing phase. Concerning the variance from one miner to another, he says, “The variability was sufficient and most welcome for our testing. With varying number of fans to work with, lower or higher hash rates, and differing makeup styles, the miners offered us with the needed variety.”
He also adds, “We tested running the machines on one or all fans. We also had them operate at full strength and at reduced speeds as well to determine the corresponding energy consumption rates.” At the end of the testing phase, they came up with a conclusion. The power consumption was not significantly different when the miners ran at varying speeds. The pilot project lasted three months.
Additionally, they realized they needed to store the machines in a manner that would not interfere with the operation of other equipment. Plus due to the power uptake, they had to be kept cool always. Speaking about the pilot project, Rankin says, “It was long but necessary to confirm everything worked as expected. Only then could we know for sure if our facility could handle the miner if the need arose to keep it entirely.”
Rankin explains, “Bitcoin helps our ad with visibility by making it highlighted. That way, it comes at the front top of the page thereby increasing the efficiency of the Sheriff’s office in its operations.” For both the detectives, Rankin and Undiano, the pilot program was a success to them. Their view is supported by the benefits they can point out that it has added to their operations. On previous ads that the Sheriff’s office posted, it was problematic to get sufficient attention to them. However, Bitcoin brought relief and improvement on the issue. It allowed them to post ads even on certain specific sites.
From a recent involvement, the detectives were brought into contact with a child pornography case. In this case, the individual was streaming live pornography. The only best acceptable way the detectives could penetrate the web and try identifying the host of the service and involved accomplices was to trade in Bitcoin. “There was no way we could buy child pornography to find our way in,” says Undiano. As evident from the case just presented, the agency is able to use cryptocurrency to open ways for them to gain access and have the chance to intercept illegal activities on the dark web.
Tracing the Bitcoins to their originators is possible despite their claimed anonymity. It depends majorly on the suspect slipping and making a grave mistake by converting the bitcoins to cash. Rankin makes it plain, “turning the Bitcoin into cash, especially within the borders of the U.S., allows us to track down the owner of the account to which the cashed out bitcoin was directed to. The suspect may not be in our area, Arkansas, but we are closely affiliated to the DHS task force.” Apart from this prospect, he acknowledges the difficulty that there is in tracing any activity to a specific individual. “Still,” he adds, “we can use the bitcoin to acquire fake documents from the hands of the criminals. We may be unable to trace their origins but at least we have brought them out of the streets into the safety of our custody at the cost of the public.”
With the success of the Benton County Bitcoin mission, other agencies may be encouraged to try their own pilot project. For such, Undiano and Rankin have free advice to offer. “Go slow,” they say, “the operation is not a quick in and out situation.” Acquiring miners for Bitcoin mining involves several factors that should be given consideration. The price, for instance, is dependent on a combination of the different factors in play.
According to Rankin, China is the major source and a much cheaper option than buying secondhand in the U.S. Additionally, shipping from China, direct route from the company, adds the burden of lead time. One has to account for the time of manufacturing and transportation in the expenses for acquisition of the miners. “The Bitmain Antminer averages at about $2,000 without the assurance of a power supply to come with it. In the case the power supply is absent, that calls for an additional $200 to the upper side,” confirms Rankin.
Like in their project, Rankin is quick to make it known that it is possible to start at the most minimal cost. He cites the expenses to be incurred as dependent on the needs the urgency intends to meet. “A more important factor is to have a supportive administration that shares in the idea to take the Bitcoin mining risk. Without such support, the efforts of the detectives may prove to be futile and deeply hindered. This is key,” states Rankin.
From their pilot project, the Benton County Sheriff’s department has since turned off their miner after acquiring sufficient Bitcoins. Together with their operation is a carefully schemed audit system to provide accountability. Undiano leaves a remark for other law enforcement agencies saying, “Many agencies do not see any problem in the cyber world because they have not started looking for it.”