A Tool For Criminals : For years Bitcoin and other digital currencies were the coin of choice for international criminal syndicates. The qualities that make cryptocurrencies attractive - decentralization and anonymity - make them great for theft, ransom and selling drugs.

Getting paid used to be the hardest part of holding someone hostage, said Ross Anderson, a cybersecurity researcher at the University of Cambridge who studies how the police and criminals use technology.

'' It's easy enough to grab the heiress or her dog, but the problem then is that when you threatened to cut her ear off, and asked Mr. Rockefeller to send you a large suitcase full of dollar bills, the police tagged along or they put a radio transmitter in it,'' he said.

''With Bitcoin, you can get actually quite extortion amounts, like seven - and eight figure sums, which can be delivered simultaneously to Russia or North Korea or wherever.''

The new model fueled a surge in ransom ware attacks, in which hackers take control of computers and demand a ransom. Recorded Future, a security company that tracks such attacks, estimated that last year, one attack occurred every 8 minutes.

Ransomware attacks have recently hit hospitals, meatpackers, minor league baseball teams and the ferries to Martha's Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts.

Many companies pay the ransoms because it is easier and faster than alternative solutions, even though it also gives hackers more incentive.

YET the Colonial Pipeline case showed that the police could also use the cryptocurrencies to their advantage. Each transaction is recorded in a public ledger, making the money traceable as it travels from one anonymous account to the next.

That means that law enforcement agencies with enough money and expertise can typically hack into an account and snatch the money back.

But hacking can be expensive and time - consuming.


The history of the cat-and-mouse game between the police and criminals is long. In the 1920s, bandits realized that cars could allow them to rob a home or bank and quickly escape to the next county or state, where the police would be less interested in solving the crime.

''It took something like 50 years for the police to catchup with regional crime squads and police national computers and eventually with automatic plate numbers recognition,'' Mr. Anderson said. ''But for a while, the existence of the car meant that it was fun time for gangsters.''

Today, law enforcement agencies' eagerness to keep us has spawned a rapidly growing industry dedicated to extracting suspects' communication data.

Cellebrite, the Israeli company said, said its sales had increased 38 percent in the first quarter to $53 million, as more police departments bought its tools to hack into into suspects' phones.

At least 2,000 law enforcement agencies in all 50 American states have such tools, including 49 of of the 50 largest U.S. police departments, according to Upturn, a Washington nonprofit organization that investigates how the police use technology.

Still, some of the nation's top law enforcement officials have asked for more from tech companies and lawmakers. Cyrus R. Vance Jr, the Manhattan district attorney, told Congress in 2019 that data extraction tools were expensive and unreliable.

They can sometimes take weeks or even years to crack into a phone, he said.

'' There are many, many serious cases where we can't access the device in the time period where it is most important for us,'' Mr. Vance told lawmakers.

The World Students Society thanks authors Jack Nicas and Michael S. Schmidt.


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