The US government disclosed today that it had seized over $1bn of bitcoin from an unidentified individual who had stolen the cryptocurrency by hacking the Silk Road dark net website in 2013.
Silk Road, which allowed users to buy drugs, guns and other illicit materials and services, reportedly accounted for 30 percent of all bitcoin trading in 2012.
The website was closed by US federal agents in 2013. Its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced in 2015 to a double life sentence, plus forty years without the possibility of parole.
According to a judicial forfeiture action, published earlier today, US officials used cryptocurrency analysis software earlier this year to conclude that around 70,000 bitcoin had been hacked from the Silk Road in 2013.
The stolen bitcoin ended up at a bitcoin address controlled by someone the US authorities call ‘individual X’ in the lawsuit.
Although bitcoin addresses are publicly visible, the identity of their owner(s) is not disclosed. However, blockchain analysis companies like Chainalysis and Elliptic use statistical analyses to identify addresses with suspect provenance
US government says that although Silk Road’s founder, Ross Ulbricht, had become aware of Individual X’s online identity before the website’s closure in 2013, and had and threatened him to ensure the return of the cryptocurrency, individual X did not return the cryptocurrency but kept it.
Although the hacker did not go on to spend the bitcoin, he did send a small portion of it in 2015 to BTC-e, a controversial cryptocurrency exchange that was set up in Russia in 2011.
In 2019, Russian-speaking journalists at the BBC service published evidence that the FSB, Russia’s military intelligence agency, had been behind the disappearance of $450m-worth of cryptocurrency from the WEX cryptocurrency exchange, a successor to BTC-e, in 2018.
In its lawsuit, the US government says that individual X agreed on November 3 to hand over to it all the hacked cryptocurrency. At today’s bitcoin price of $15,000, that’s worth over $1bn.
In 2014 and 2015 the US sold off more than 144,000 bitcoins it had seized from the Silk Road website itself in 2013. The sales raised around $48m at the time. Had the federal authorities held on to their bitcoin until today, the cryptocurrency hoard would have been worth over $2bn.
Sign up here for the monthly New Money Review newsletter
Click here for a full list of episodes of the New Money Review podcast: the future of money in 30 minutes