Just when crypto users thought they were ‘safe’ from the prying eyes of busybodies, reality might be much different. Privacy is one of the features that endeared millions to popular cryptocurrency bitcoin. However, The Intercept reported yesterday that leaked Snowden Papers contain information that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been working to track down bitcoin users.
Apparently, this breach of privacy has been going on for the past five years with NSA using a tool called 'MONKEYROCKET', a part of a sub-program codenamed Oakstar. This tool is known for tracking devices and gathering data from America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Perhaps, a minute consolation could be had in the fact that the NSA didn't appear to have been tracking random bitcoin users, but focused on groups suspected to be involved in terrorism, money laundering and other nefarious activities. These are activities that reuiqre the level of anonymity bitcoin provides. By cataloguing and cross-referencing numbers, the NSA was able to “track down the senders and receivers of bitcoins.”
Justifying its move, the NSA's staff said they were
“(...)hoping to use the access for their mission of looking at organized crime and cyber targets that utilize online e-currency services to move and launder money. These illicit finance networks provide user access to international monetary systems while providing a high degree of anonymity.”
Apart from bitcoin, the NSA also watched the Liberty Reserve which has since withered away due to money laundering cases involving cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless, according to a memo by the NSA, bitcoin is the number one crypto being monitored.
The MONKEYROCKET tool has been described as a “non-Western Internet anonymization service” that acquired a “significant user base” in China and Iran. What the product was is unclear, but its purpose was to “attract targets engaged in terrorism,” including notorious organizations like Al-Qaida.
As such, the tool allowed the NSA to monitor bitcoin users after tricking them into believing they were using a tool that would bolster their anonymity. Instead, it was just funneling data to the agency.
The leak is coming at an interesting time when US President Donald Trump has just issued an executive order banning US citizens from participating in the pre-sale of Venezuela's oil-backed cryptocurrency Petro (PTR). It's also at a time when the trial for a $4 billion bitcoin-based money laundering operation allegedly masterminded by Alexander Vinnick is ongoing.