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Mapping the Bitcoin Economy Could Reveal Users’ Identities

5 September 2013 | by Tom Simonite | technologyreview.com

Analyzing the public traces left by every bitcoin transaction could allow law enforcement to identify many users of a currency often assumed to offer anonymity.

The digital currency Bitcoin has a reputation for providing privacy. But a new analysis of the public log of all bitcoin transactions suggests it could be surprisingly easy for a law enforcement agency to identify many users of the currency. Popular uses for bitcoins include illicit gambling and making purchases at an online marketplace called Silk Road, where illegal drugs are traded openly.

The new research, from a team at University of California, San Diego, comes at a time when investment in the bitcoin economy is booming (see “Bitcoin Hits the Big Time”), and as it is being scrutinized by U.S. authorities. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has seized a total of $5 million from Mt Gox, the largest exchange where people go to convert between bitcoins and conventional currencies. Last month, New York’s financial regulator subpoenaed 22 companies to gather information about their dealings with Bitcoin.

“The Bitcoin protocol still has huge potential for anonymity,” says Sarah Meiklejohn, who led the research project, “but the way that people are using it is not achieving anonymity at all.”


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