The NSA Has Been Tracking Bitcoin Users, Snowden Papers Reveals

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Not to be mistaken for another Jason Bourne thriller, the Edward Snowden papers show a US government/bitcoin connection. The Intercept is reporting classified documents leaked by Snowden prove that the US National Security Agency (NSA) in fact was keeping tabs on bitcoin users globally, as evidenced by a report that’s surfaced from March 2013. The timing is curious, with the ink barely dry on an executive order signed by President Trump to ban Americans from transacting with Venezuela’s Petro coin.

In true spy agency style, the report is filled with code names and numbers as well as the cataloging and cross-referencing of data that ultimately helped them to “track down the senders and receivers of bitcoins,” top secret excerpts reveal. The NSA called its bitcoin spying project Oakstar, and the initial focus of the mission was counterterrorism-focused.

It doesn’t appear that the NSA was randomly targeting people. They at least appear to have been monitoring groups that were using the level of anonymity allowed by bitcoin transactions for clandestine purposes, such as money laundering activities. If you’ve ever wondered what a top-secret NSA entry looks like, here’s a glimpse:

“[NSA agent] is hoping to use the access for their mission of looking at organized crime and cyber targets that utilize online e-currency services to move and launder money. These illicit finance networks provide user access to international monetary systems while providing a high degree of anoymity.”

Here’s how it went down. The NSA was seemingly able to use the sophisticated tools available to the US spy agency to collect and analyze internet data, capabilities that were bolstered by let’s call it a super software program that protected the identity of users.

Bitcoin was one of three areas of activity that were being watched, in addition to Liberty Reserve, which has since been shuttered amid money laundering with cryptocurrencies, and one other. Even though bitcoin isn’t the most anonymous cryptocurrency out there, it was the “No. 1 priority” of the NSA.

Network Access

While the blockchain is a public ledger, the NSA didn’t stop there. They apparently gained access to user computer systems, collecting information such as passwords, user sessions and a media access control address. They also seem to have captured personal info such as billing details and IP addresses. The agency was set on uncovering the connection between what they called “bitcoin targets” and the data they had.

As for the timing of the reveal, it could just be a coincidence. But regardless, the more that the government tries to get its grips on the blockchain movement, the more it seems to only embolden the cryptocurrency community to distance themselves further from the centralized financial system.

Featured image from Shutterstock.

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Gerelyn is a fintech and cryptocurrency journalist who started her career writing about traditional finance/Wall Street. She has been reporting on financial services for the past 15-plus years. In full disclosure, she holds bitcoin (BTC).