How bitcoin helped track down suspects in the Russia investigation

One blockchain developer showed VICE News how to trace just anyone with a bitcoin wallet.

People like to think that using bitcoin makes your transactions anonymous. But it's way more traceable than everyone thinks.

Buried in last month’s special counsel indictment of 12 alleged Russian spies was an explanation of how law enforcement used the blockchain, the network which facilitates bitcoin transactions, to track and identify the suspects through their cryptocurrency transactions.

One blockchain developer, Tim Cotten, even traced bitcoin purchases back to Russia’s intelligence agency, the GRU, using only public information. Cotten showed VICE News how just about anyone with a bitcoin wallet could do the same.

Because every bitcoin transaction is recorded on a public ledger, law enforcement can trace back bitcoins to its origins. Once you trace enough steps back, an investigator could typically find some place where bitcoins were purchased or where bitcoins were used to purchase a service.

That's key because bitcoin sellers, like Coinbase, or places that sell services, typically require some personal information. With the power of subpoena, law enforcement could obtain that personal information, which makes it easier to link a bitcoin transaction to a real person, instead of a random series of numbers and letters.