There’s always two sides to every coin. Could the use of Bitcoin lead to the WannaCry hackers’ downfall? Even with today’s digital complexity, following the money might just be the best way to catch them.
Over the past few days, the world witnessed the importance of protecting IT systems from cyber attack. Using a technique known as ransomware, hackers held organizations to ransom by blocking several servers with the WannaCry virus and then offering the decryption key for $300 (at approximately 0.17 exchange rate today) payable in Bitcoins.
Hackers use Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency which allows peer-to-peer exchange (i.e. from person to person) without going through traditional financial circuits because it’s anonymous. And Bitcoin is readily available and easy to purchase – you can go to any Swiss Railway ticket ATM to get them. By using cryptocurrency, cybercriminals remain hidden by providing a Bitcoin address (a sort of bank account number) to execute the transaction without ever revealing the recipient’s name.
Using blockchain to stop hackers
Unlike transactions in traditional financial systems, Bitcoin exchanges are permanent and transparent – traceable on a decentralized register called a blockchain. The blockchain records and shows all performed operations so that everyone can see what took place. If for example, you take one of WannaCry hackers’ Bitcoin address 115p7UMMngoj1pMvkpHijcRdfJNXj6LrLn, you see on the blockchain.info website that about twelve Bitcoins were paid in ransom on 19 May 2017.
Investigators can use the Bitcoin trail to track down and stop the hackers. To use extorted Bitcoins, hackers must transfer them to a third-party address, perhaps a Bitcoin-wallet service provider or a platform that allows Bitcoin and fiat currency exchange. These providers, however, apply anti-money laundering rules and can spot the WannaCry Bitcoin address and inform the authorities.
Granted, cybercriminals use special programs to make it harder to track a Bitcoin transaction on the network, but it’s neither a fool-proof nor a future-proof guarantee for keeping the transaction secret. Because the blockchain permanently records transactions, future technologies might be able to identify old transactions and trace them back to the hackers.
Micro crimes with a significant impact
Bitcoins are used for micro crime, where the financial burden of tracking the blockchain is not proportionate to the damage caused to the victim or the society. Even in the WannaCry case, the hackers required just a $300 ransom, but the damage caused to the community was enormous. Criminal prosecution authorities are already hunting for these types of offenders. And Bitcoin might just be the means to catch them.