A new report from The Intercept reveals that the National Security Agency has been able to track users of the popular cryptocurrency Bitcoin since at least 2013. The revelation is detailed in newly released classified documented obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden and provided to the The Intercept. The documents show the agency accessing the fiber-optic cables which allow internet traffic to travel around the world in order to gain access to private information of bitcoin users.
The Intercept reported:
“Classified documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden show that the National Security Agency indeed worked urgently to target Bitcoin users around the world — and wielded at least one mysterious source of information to “help track down senders and receivers of Bitcoins,” according to a top-secret passage in an internal NSA report dating to March 2013. The data source appears to have leveraged the NSA’s ability to harvest and analyze raw, global internet traffic while also exploiting an unnamed software program that purported to offer anonymity to users, according to other documents.”
An internal NSA report from March 15, 2013 stated that the agency was interested in monitoring traffic for other cryptos; however, “Bitcoin is #1 priority”. Another memo from March 29, 2013 indicated that the NSA collected users’ passwords, internet history, and a unique device identification number known as a MAC address. The memo suggests analysts were also tracking internet users’ internet addresses, network ports, and timestamps. The documents also indicate the use of the NSA’s powerful internal search engine, XKeyScore.
“As of 2013, the NSA’s Bitcoin tracking was achieved through program code-named OAKSTAR, a collection of covert corporate partnerships enabling the agency to monitor communications, including by harvesting internet data as it traveled along fiber optic cables that undergird the internet,” The Intercept wrote. The NSA used a sub-program of OAKSTAR – known as MONKEYROCKET – to gather data from the Middle East, Europe, South America, and Asia.
MONKEYROCKET is also apparently falsely promoted to the public as a tool for anonymity. The documents describe MONKEYROCKET as a “non-Western Internet anonymization service” with a “significant user base” in Iran and China. One document notes that the goal of MONKEYROCKET was to “attract targets engaged in terrorism, [including] Al Qaida” to use the “browsing product,” which “the NSA can then exploit.” This is known as a honey pot in computer security. The NSA deceives users into believing they are secure and anonymous and then uses the program to track the activities of users. The documents do not clarify what type of program or software MONKEYROCKET actually is, but the description aligns with a virtual private network, or VPN, which is designed to encrypt and mask internet traffic.
Matthew Green, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, told The Intercept that the revelations are “bad news for privacy.” Green also said he is “pretty skeptical” that using Tor, the popular browser which promises anonymity, could escape the eyes and ears of the NSA. Green’s comments are bolstered by recently released documents which indicate that the TOR project is nearly entirely funded by agencies with connections to the U.S. government.
Another disturbing aspect of the latest Snowden revelation is the possibility that this program may have been used to illegally gather information in the Silk Road trial. In that trial, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to three life sentences after the court was convinced he was the accused mastermind who created the Silk Road website which allowed drugs to be purchased using Bitcoin. Ulbricht’s attorneys attempted to have the charges thrown out throughout his trial because they believed the U.S. government had illegally obtained access to Ulbricht’s computers and property. The judge overruled such objections, and the entire premise was dismissed as a conspiracy. The Intercept noted that “although the documents leaked by Snowden do not address whether the NSA aided the FBI’s Silk Road investigation, they show the agency working to unmask Bitcoin users about six months before Ulbricht was arrested.”
These new documents show that the NSA had access to Bitcoin users around the world around the same time that Ulbricht’s case was heating up, pointing to plausibility that the NSA used this program (or another still secret tool) go gain access to the private documents of Ross Ulbricht. The question remains as to how many other Bitcoin and cryptocurrency users’ information was accessed by the NSA or other agencies of the U.S. government. Until there is a transparent investigation with subpoena power that looks into the hidden activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies, the American public remains in the dark regarding the depth and nature of the American surveillance state.