It is no news by now that the long-awaited Mueller Report has revealed extensive Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While much attention has been focused on whether or not president Donald Trump was in any way complicit with these efforts, what is less reported is that the report showed that state-backed Russian operatives used bitcoin extensively in their attempts to impede Hilary Clinton and help Donald Trump’s campaign.
According to the report, agents working on behalf of Russian military intelligence used bitcoin to do everything from purchasing VPNs to buying domains hosting political propaganda. This was part of a wide-reaching and apparently successful attempt to hack the 2016 election that saw Trump emerge victorious against all expectations.
BITCOIN TRANSACTIONS ARE VERY TRACEABLE
While this may not be news to anyone familiar with cryptocurrencies, the Russian agents apparently worked under the mistaken assumption that the mere fact of their transactions being carried out using cryptocurrency made them anonymous and untraceable. In fact, as has been demonstrated several times, bitcoin transactions are not that difficult to trace, given the presence of some key data.
In this case, while Russian agents from the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) tried to work outside the realm of conventional financial systems by transacting exclusively in BTC, Mueller’s investigating team was able to sniff them out because of their use of crypto exchanges. One of such exchanges is the notorious BTC-e, run by Alexander Vinnik who is currently imprisoned in Greece amid a 3-way diplomatic tussle involving Russia, the U.S. and France.
FBI agents who managed to gain access to a few of the email addresses used to create accounts on these exchanges were then able to piece together a wider picture of who carried out what BTC transaction by using publicly available blockchain transaction history.
In other words, even Russian intelligence assets did not figure out that if they left even the slightest crumb for investigators, their entire paper trail could be uncovered, as Mueller’s term did. The effect of using bitcoin to carry out every transaction linked to hacking the 2016 election was that Mueller’s team did not have to do too much work identifying and linking transactions , because blockchain records basically did all the work for them. Instead of scouring the blockchain for clues and evidence, Mueller was basically given a Trojan horse giving him access to the entire financial dealings of covert Russian intelligence assets meddling in an American election.
A VERY RUSSIAN SCREW UP
While the Russians celebrated their apparent breakthrough in hacking America’s internal democracy, they apparently did not think to cover their tracks sufficiently. The report states that GRU agents used a mix of false and stolen identities to set up crypto exchange accounts . These accounts were then used to buy servers and domains instrumental to the DNC server hack, as well as leaking and publishing material stolen during the hack.
Mueller’s team was even able to trace the purchase of a VPN – carried out using bitcoin – to the GRU agents. According to the report, this VPN was then used to manage @Guccifer_2, a Twitter account that leaked hacked information to Wikileaks and engaged in other activities aimed at interfering with the U.S. election.
The full implication of Mueller’s report remains unknown, with Trump’s team claiming victory and Democrats proposing impeachment, but what does seem clear at this time is that the use of bitcoin to carry out clandestine transactions can now be filed away under “dinosaur activity.” CCN has previously reported that U.S. law enforcement has invested millions in blockchain tracking capacity, but the Mueller report is conclusive evidence that crypto transaction monitoring is now mainstream practice.