The West Midlands Police announced Thursday that it had uncovered an illegal Bitcoin mining operation in what was originally supposed to be a raid of a suspected cannabis farm.
The raid of the industrial site originally occurred on May 18 in Sandwell, a borough near the city of Birmingham in the UK. It came during the County Lines Intensification Week, a nationwide six-day crackdown on county lines gangs—groups that traffick drugs from urban to rural areas—that led to the arrest of 1,100 people.
According to West Midlands police, earlier intelligence suggested that the site had all the telltale signs of a cannabis operation.
“We heard how lots of people were visiting the unit at different times of day, lots of wiring and ventilation ducts were visible, and a police drone picked up a considerable heat source from above,” they wrote in a press release.
Instead, they found a large collection of 100 hundred computers, which they “understood to be a bitcoin mining operation.” In photos, the rigs appear to be Antminer S9s, which are powerful machines designed solely to mine Bitcoin.
While Bitcoin mining remains legal in the U.K., the police said that the miners had been illegally stealing electricity. According to the press release, police inquired at the local power utility and found that allegedly “the electric supply had been bypassed and thousands of pounds worth had been stolen to power the ‘mine’.”
“It’s certainly not what we were expecting!” Sandwell Police Sergeant Jennifer Griffin said. “It had all the hallmarks of a cannabis cultivation set-up and I believe it’s only the second such crypto mine we’ve encountered in the West Midlands.”
“We’ve seized the equipment and will be looking into permanently seizing it under the Proceeds of Crime Act. No-one was at the unit at the time of the warrant and no arrests have been made – but we’ll be making enquiries with the unit’s owner,” Griffin continued.
The raid comes as the environmental impacts of cryptocurrency mining are increasingly coming under scrutiny.
The increasingly complex computational problems needed to mine bitcoin require high-performance computers, with larger operations using hundreds or even thousands. Both the computers themselves and the systems required to keep them cool use large amounts of electricity. An appetite for energy is something that Bitcoin mines and many cannabis farms share.
In April, a team of researchers estimated that the amount of energy consumed by bitcoin mining could surpass that of all of Italy by 2024. And, in Iran, entire cities have reportedly experienced blackouts because of cryptocurrency mining.