Explaining Cryptocurrency’s Ransomware Problem – Technology

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The recent ransomware attacks on Colonial Pipeline and JBS led
to a flurry of calls to ban Bitcoin (and cryptocurrency generally)
as enabling and incentivizing these attacks.1  Given
the difficulty of tracking the perpetrators, the argument goes,
cryptocurrency is a uniquely appealing method of payment to
hackers.  Take away the hackers’ easy ability to get paid
and you reduce the incentive to carry out the attack.  Bitcoin
defenders point out that lots of things are used in criminal
activity that we aren’t prepared to ban.  Cryptocurrency
critics reply that, for all its promise, cryptocurrency remains
devoid of a single positive use case, and that its primary uses are
for speculative investment and criminal activity.2  On
Sunday, June 6, former President Trump remarked that Bitcoin was
“a scam” that competed with the U.S. dollar.3  Then on Monday, June 7,
federal authorities announced that they had traced and seized
millions of dollars that Colonial Pipeline paid in the attack, the
first such publicized ransomware payment recovery.4  What,
if any, implications does that recovery have for the debate over
banning cryptocurrency?

This explainer unpacks the recent events, their meaning, and
suggests what might be coming next in terms of law enforcement and
regulatory activity for cryptocurrency.

What Happens in a Ransomware Attack?

A hacker penetrates a company’s computer system and encrypts
the company’s data, thereby bringing operations to a
halt.  The hacker then holds the data hostage until a ransom
is paid.  If the demand is made for payment in Bitcoin or
another cryptocurrency, the victim has to open an account on a
cryptocurrency exchange, buy Bitcoin, and send it to the
hacker’s virtual wallet in exchange for the decryption
key.  The key allows the company to restore access to its data
so its operations can resume.  The hacker, meanwhile, moves
the payment through cryptocurrency exchanges and
“mixers”—services that blend cryptocurrency from
various sources to hide its origin, thereby laundering the ransom

Why is Cryptocurrency the Payment of Choice for Ransomware

Cryptocurrency is useful for ransomware payments due to its
pseudonymous quality; even if you see the final destination wallet
into which the ransom payment is deposited, you can’t see who
owns or controls the wallet.  This has allowed ransomware
attacks to be carried out with relative impunity.  This
impunity, in turn, has led to an explosion of ransomware attacks
and the prevalence of a ransomware company DarkSide, which leases
its ransomware to hackers in exchange for a portion of any ransom
paid.  DarkSide, the recipient of the Colonial Pipeline ransom
payment, has collected more than $90 million in ransom payments in
the last year, according to Elliptic, a blockchain analytics

Ransomware attacks demanding cryptocurrency have gotten worse in
both nature and number.  In past years, ransomware hackers
stole data and threatened to release it or sell it online.7  A terrible act to be sure, but
not one that necessarily paralyzes a company. More recently,
however, hackers have increasingly brought operations to a halt by
encrypting files necessary for continuing the business.
 Attacks are, therefore, more likely to be debilitating,
giving the hackers more leverage.

Hackers have used this leverage to strike harder and more
frequently.  The number of ransomware cases reported to the
FBI went up by approximately 66% in 2020,8 and the
average ransomware payment has quadrupled in less than two years,
going from $12,000 in Q4 2019 to $54,000 in Q1 2021.9  A report by blockchain
analytics firm Chainalysis noted that although prior to Q1 2020, it
never saw a ransomware payment above $6 million, since then it has
identified at least one per quarter. 10

Source: Chainalysis: Ransomware 2021: Critical Mid-Year
Update [Report Preview

In terms of total value paid, Chainalysis found that
cryptocurrency value received by ransomware addresses went from
just over $37 million in 2019, to just over $92 million in 2019, to
more than $406 million in 2020.  And as of May 10, 2021, more
than $81 million in cryptocurrency had been sent to ransomware

So Why Not Ban Cryptocurrency?

Notwithstanding the concerns about cryptocurrency facilitating
ransomware attacks, a ban is generally thought by those in the
industry and the federal government alike to be overbroad,
logistically impractical, and likely to cause competitive harm to
the U.S.11  Although assorted calls for
a ban have been published recently,12 federal
regulators and law enforcement officials are optimistic that the
regulation will catch up to the risk.

For instance, Chairman of the SEC Gary Gensler, who previously
taught a course at MIT on cryptocurrency and blockchain, has
described himself as an “optimist” on the blockchain
technology used to record Bitcoin transactions, saying that he
wants it to succeed while protecting financial stability,
investors, and consumers.13  In April, SEC
Commissioner Hester Peirce commented that “it would be a
foolish thing for the government to try to do that [ban
Bitcoin],” that a “government could say it’s not
allowed here but people would still be able to do it and it would
be very hard to stop people from doing it [transacting in
Bitcoin],” adding that “we would be missing out on the
innovation around bitcoin and other digital assets if we decided to
try to stop them.”14  The same month, Michael
Morell, former Deputy Director of the CIA authored a paper arguing
(among other things) that the blockchain ledger on which Bitcoin
transactions are recorded is a very effective and under-utilized
crime-fighting and intelligence gathering tool.15

Morello cites current and former federal officials of the view
that it “is easier for law enforcement to trace illicit
activity using Bitcoin than it is to trace cross-border illegal
activity using traditional banking transactions, and far easier
than cash transactions,” and who compare the blockchain ledger
recording Bitcoin transactions to “having the whole world be a
witness to paying someone $2,000 in a dark alley.”16  To be fair, having the whole
world witness the payment is not the same as having it witness the
identity of the payee.  In any event, Morello’s confidence
in law enforcement’s tracing ability was born out on June 7
when federal authorities announced the recovery of millions of
dollars paid in the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack.17

How Did the FBI Recover the Ransom Payment?

In this case, the FBI seemed to catch a lucky break, as no
tracking through mixers or other obscuring channels was
required.  Within days of the May 8 ransom payment by Colonial
Pipeline, the analytics firm Elliptic identified the Bitcoin wallet
that received the payment and observed that it had received Bitcoin
payments since March totaling $17.5 million.18 Although
most of the payments were moved out on May 9, just over two million
dollars remained in the same account it was paid into
until it was seized by the FBI through a court-approved seizure

At the same time, the actions of identifying the wallet and
obtaining a seizure warrant, by themselves, would not give the FBI
access to the ransom payments.  The FBI also needed the
private key to access the wallet.  The agent affidavit
submitted in support of the seizure warrant application states that
the FBI was in possession of the private key, but does not specify
how it was obtained.  Nor has the FBI said publicly how it
obtained the key.  A few possibilities noted in the press are
that (1) the FBI was tipped off by someone associated with the
attack, or associated with DarkSide, (2) one of the hackers was
careless in discussing the key over a communications channel and
the FBI had already obtained a search warrant for (as the FBI had
been investigating DarkSide for the last year, or (3) from
“leveraging information it got from Bitcoin or from the
cryptocurrency exchange where the money had been bouncing from one
account to another since it was first paid.”19
 Given that some of the money never left the original account
into which it was deposited, presumably this means that law
enforcement gained insight from the other payments that were moving
between accounts.  For now, however, we are left to speculate
as to how the key was obtained.

What Does the Recovery Mean for Banning or Regulating

Given that law enforcement has an ability to track and recover
ransomware payments in a way that even a week ago seemed unlikely,
the recent recovery could both deter such attacks and quiet the
calls to “ban cryptocurrency” generally. But recovering
the payment is not the same as identifying and prosecuting the
hacker.  Nor is it the same as preventing such attacks in the
first place.

De-anonymizing transactions would help achieve both the
prevention and prosecution aims, as regulators seem to agree. A
would-be hacker whose identity is discoverable is more likely
deterred from attempting such an attack.  In terms of new
standards, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”), a
group of 200 countries and jurisdictions that sets AML and other
standards for virtual assets and virtual asset service providers
(“VASPs”), released a draft of new guidance in March that
seems to suggest prohibiting peer-to-peer cryptocurrency exchanges
and privacy coins (i.e., Anonymity-Enhanced
Cryptocurrencies (“AECs”) that use additional features to
conceal information about transactions).20
 Concern about privacy coins is not limited to FATF. 
Michael Morell commented that the most popular privacy
coin—Monero—sees a higher percentage of illicit
activity within its overall transaction volume, that one known
ransomware group (Sodinokibi) accepts payments only in Monero and
that some ransomware operators offer discounted rates to victims
who paid in Monero or other AECs.21  South Korea banned
Monero and other privacy coins late last year, and many
cryptocurrency exchanges choose not to list Monero given the risks
associated with it.22

We can also expect greater enforcement of existing Know Your
Customer (KYC) and AML obligations and standards.  For
instance, cryptocurrency exchanges, custodial wallet companies, and
crypto payment processors (among others) must register as money
services businesses with FinCEN, have AML programs that specify the
KYC information collected, and appoint a compliance officer to
monitor transactions and file Suspicious Activity Reports
(“SARs”) and Currency Transactions Reports
(“CTRs”) for transactions in excess of $10,000.
 These processes are important not only for potential law
enforcement tracking in the event a crime occurs, but obviously for
crime prevention and for building consumer trust and confidence, a
necessity for widespread adoption of cryptocurrency.  New
applicants need to know that criminals are being screened for and
kept out.

Greater federal resources are also being committed to enhance
law enforcement sophistication in tracking and prosecuting crypto
crimes. 23  As mentioned in a prior client advisory, the U.S. Department of
Justice (“DOJ”) released its Cryptocurrency Enforcement
Framework in October 2020, and the IRS (among other agencies) has
been contracting with blockchain analytics firms to work on tracing
the “untraceable” privacy coins and other currencies, a
project that seems to have been at least partially successful.24  Just a week ago, DOJ
launched the Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force dedicated
to combating combatting ransomware attacks, which FBI Director
Christopher Wray has compared to the national security threat the
country faced after terrorist attacks of the September 11, 2001.25  The new task force, a
public-private partnership, includes representatives from the FBI
and the United States Secret Service as well as major tech and
security companies,26 and is expected to recommend
tougher KYC regulations and licensing requirements as well as
centralize efforts to combat and respond to ransomware attacks.

Attorneys in Kelley Drye’s White Collar, Investigations and Compliance
practice group are currently advising clients with respect to
cryptocurrency, KYC compliance, and ransomware exposure.
  Clients should feel free to contact the authors or any
other Kelley Drye attorney they work with to further discuss the


1 See, e.g., Lee Reiners, Ban
Cryptocurrency to Fight Ransomware
, WSJ (May 25, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/ban-cryptocurrency-to-fight-ransomware-11621962831?page=1;
Jacob Silverman, Want to Stop Ransomware Attacks? Ban Bitcoin
and Other Cryptocurrencies
, The New Republic (June 2, 2021),

2 The authors are not endorsing this view, to
be clear, and will discuss use cases in a future

3 See  Mary-Ann Russon,
Donald Trump calls Bitcoin ‘a scam against the
 BBC News (June 8, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/business-57392734.

4 Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Just.,
Department of Justice Seizes $2.3 Million in Cryptocurrency Paid to
the Ransomware Extortionists Darkside (June 7, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-seizes-23-million-cryptocurrency-paid-ransomware-extortionists-darkside.

5 See,  Jeff Stone,
Ransomware hackers launder bitcoin through just a handful of
locations, researchers find,
Cyberscoop (Jan. 26, 2021). 
The alleged mastermind of one Bitcoin mixing service, Bitcoin Fog,
was arrested in April on money laundering and other
charges. Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Just., Individual
Arrested and Charged with Operating Notorious Darknet
Cryptocurrency ‘Mixer’ (Apr. 28, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/individual-arrested-and-charged-operating-notorious-darknet-cryptocurrency-mixer.

6 See,  Ellen Nakashima,
Feds recover more than $2 million in ransomware payments from
Colonial Pipeline hackers
, Washington Post (June 7, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/06/07/colonial-pipeline-ransomware-payment-recovered/.

7 See, e.g., Jaclyn Diaz, D.C.
Police Department Victim of Apparent Ransomware Attack,
(Apr. 27, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/04/27/991116344/d-c-police-department-victim-of-apparent-ransomware-attack;
Cognizant hit by ‘Maze’ ransomware attack, Reuters
(Apr. 18, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cognizant-tech-cyber/cognizant-hit-by-maze-ransomware-attack-idUSKBN2200YA;
Lee Matthews, Ransomware Hackers Have Started Leaking City of
Pensacola Data
, Forbes (Dec. 31, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/leemathews/2020/12/31/ransomware-hackers-have-started-leaking-city-of-pensacola-data/?sh=42b25224994b.

8 FBI, Internet Crime Report 2020
(March 2021), https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2020_IC3Report.pdf.

9 Ransomware 2021: Critical Mid-year
, Chainalysis Blog (May 14, 2021), https://blog.chainalysis.com/reports/ransomware-update-may-2021.

10 Id.

11 Note, however, that China recently banned
financial institutions and payment companies from providing
services related to cryptocurrency transactions, and previously
banned cryptocurrency exchanges and initial coin offerings,
although individuals are not prohibited from holding
cryptocurrency.  Explainer: What Beijing’s New
Crackdown Means for Crypto in China, Reuters (May 19,
, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/what-beijings-new-crackdown-means-crypto-china-2021-05-19/

12 See, e.g., Lee Reiners, Ban
Cryptocurrency to Fight Ransomware
, WSJ (May 25, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/ban-cryptocurrency-to-fight-ransomware-11621962831?page=1;
Jacob Silverman, Want to Stop Ransomware Attacks? Ban Bitcoin
and Other Cryptocurrencies
, The New Republic (June 2, 2021),

13 Cyptocurrencies: Oversight of New
Assets in the Digital Age: Hearing Before the H. Comm. On
115th Cong. 30 (2018) (statement of Hon. Gary

14 To watch Hester Peirce’s interview at
Marketwatch’s Investing in Crypto event on April 7, 2021, see

15 See,  Michael Morrell,
“An Analysis of Bitcoin’s Use in Illicit Finance”
(April 6, 2021), https://cryptoforinnovation.org/resources/Analysis_of_Bitcoin_in_Illicit_Finance.pdf. 

16 Id.

17 Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Justice,
Department of Justice Seizes $2.3 Million in Cryptocurrency Paid to
the Ransomware Extortionists Darkside (June 7, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-seizes-23-million-cryptocurrency-paid-ransomware-extortionists-darkside.

18 See,  Tom Robinson,
Elliptic Follows the Bitcoin Ransoms Paid by Colonial Pipeline
and Other Darkside Ransomware Victims
, Elliptic (May 14,
2021), https://www.elliptic.co/blog/elliptic-follows-bitcoin-ransoms-paid-by-darkside-ransomware-victims. 
It is not clear whether Elliptic was working with law enforcement
on this particular matter or was separately tracking the

19 See,  Vanessa Romo, How
a New Team of Feds Hacked the Hackers and Got Colonial
Pipeline’s Ransom Back
, NPR (June 8, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/06/08/1004223000/how-a-new-team-of-feds-hacked-the-hackers-and-got-colonial-pipelines-bitcoin-bac.

20 Download the March 2021 Draft updated
Guidance for a risk-based approach to virtual assets and VASPs at


See also
Peter Van Valkenburgh, A quick analysis of
FATF’s 2021 draft cryptocurrency guidance,
Coin Center
(Mar. 22, 2021), https://www.coincenter.org/a-quick-analysis-of-fatfs-2021-draft-cryptocurrency-guidance/.

21 Michael Morrell, “An Analysis of
Bitcoin’s Use in Illicit Finance” (April 6, 2021), https://cryptoforinnovation.org/resources/Analysis_of_Bitcoin_in_Illicit_Finance.pdf. 

22 See Benjamin
Powers, Privacy Coin Advocates Persevere Amid Multiple
Crypto Exchange Delistings
, CoinDesk (Dec. 11, 2020), https://www.coindesk.com/privacy-coin-advocates-crypto-exchange-delistings.

23 Although we also expect increased
enforcement activity in the area of federal securities and tax law,
these are less connected to ransomware and beyond the scope of this

24 See,  Kelley Phillips Erb,
IRS Will Pay Up To $625,000 If You Can Crack Monero, Other
Privacy Coins
, Forbes (Sept. 14, 2020), https://news.bitcoin.com/chainalysis-and-integra-win-1-25-million-irs-contract-to-break-monero/. 
In early 2019, DHS contacted with CipherTrace to work on tracing
Monero transactions, as its popularity in darknet transactions was
increasing. The next year, CipherTrace filed two patents in
connection with that activity. See CipherTrace Files Two
Monero Cryptocurrency Tracing Patents, CipherTrace (Nov. 20, 2020),

25 See,  Aruna Viswanatha
& Dustin Volz, FBI Director Compares Ransomware
Challenge to 9/11
, WSJ (June 4, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/fbi-director-compares-ransomware-challenge-to-9-11-11622799003.

26  Memorandum, U.S. Dep’t of Just.,
Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force (Apr. 20, 2021), https://dd80b675424c132b90b3-e48385e382d2e5d17821a5e1d8e4c86b.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/external/dojransomwarememo.pdf.

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