In a new pilot program, Benton County Sheriff’s Office, in Arkansas, hopes bitcoin mining is a viable tool to fight cybercriminals who are using the deep web to hide their crimes. The goal is to fight child pornography and child predators, among other criminals, in undercover operations using the cryptocurrency.
According to Sheriff Shawn Holloway, the sexual exploitation of children and similar crimes are becoming a growing issue in the area. Benton County prosecutor Nathan Smith, who was consulted to see if the program could be successful, stated that as with any new idea, the experience will help refine the program. He added:
“The Sheriff’s Office deserves credit for creating a pilot program with the goal of depriving criminals of that safe haven. Ultimately, attacking crime online has a direct impact on the safety of our communities, and I am grateful that our law enforcement officers are being proactive in that effort.”
Sheriff Holloway made it clear that his goal is to tackle crime on the deep web, and clarified that law enforcement’s methods should change, just like those criminals use change as well. In an analogy, Detective Olin Rankin stated that they are going to the dark web and start “patrolling the neighborhoods as well as the main highways.”
The bitcoins the deputies want to use in undercover operations are being earned through mining. According to the Sheriff, mining the cryptocurrency was the chosen method because, as he puts it, he knows the funds haven’t been used for illegal purposes. Moreover, by mining bitcoin, the Sheriff’s Office can add a daily stream of bitcoin to use.
Zach Steelman, an assistant professor of information systems at the University of Arkansas, added that mining makes it less suspicious to other users, although it was acknowledged that the average user won’t try to track where the coins came from. He stated:
“If you buy $10,000 of Bitcoin, someone may see that. That might not be the same process a criminal would do. Mining the Bitcoin is a better way to enter that market without throwing up red flags.”
The Arkansas division is mining bitcoin through a pool and, to test its security, attempted to identify other users within the pool it is using. After failing to do so, the team got confident others won’t be able to identify them as well.
Mined bitcoins will be stored in a hardware wallet, and according to detective David Undiano, a large amount of bitcoin isn’t expected to be mined. However, the division is in contact with the federal government and other agencies to expand beyond its jurisdiction, and create a written policy for the use of their bitcoins.
“Patrolling” the dark web with bitcoin
Undiano added that people are transacting with bitcoin on the dark web, and stated that some of these transactions were to purchase child pornography. Steelman, on the other hand, recognized that cryptocurrencies are a growing trend and pointed to bitcoin’s $1.8 billion daily trading volume as an indicator. He did mention that legitimate business accepts bitcoin, he stated:
“That’s not $1.8 billion of child pornography and drugs. Lots of these are companies that send money across borders or selling assets that are real things. People are buying houses now with Bitcoin they invested in five years ago.”
Seemingly, not everyone in the division believed in the new program. A former officer who plans on challenging Sheriff Holloway in next year’s elections, Glenn Latham, pointed out that bitcoin mining is a very competitive business and that electricity costs will be paid for with taxpayer money. Even if a profit would come out of it, he added that taxpayers have the right to know what their money is being used for.
In a counter-argument, Rankin pointed out that only one computer would be used to mine the cryptocurrency, and that as such the electricity bill shouldn’t go up by large amounts. To him, the increase would be marginal at best.
Nevertheless, Latham stated that the division should go after criminals actively doing the crimes, instead of working on a project that would likely not lead to many, if any, arrests. He said:
“No question whatsoever that those activities are happening, and criminals are using Bitcoin. The problem with it is the anonymity behind the Tor network and the expense we will go through to reach a dead end. There are easier ways of catching people who are actively hunting children.”
In response, he was told that dark web usage is “becoming mainstream everywhere except with law enforcement.” It was added that if the division believes mining bitcoin isn’t working in their favor, the pilot program will be shut down.