Bitcoin and dark wallet could be used by terrorists. So what?

Posted: September 24, 2014 at 4:46 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tankDemos. You can follow him on Twitter at@jamiejbartlett

Does the creator of a technology have any moral responsibility for the uses to which it is put? It's an old question. RememberOppenheimer's famous quote, "I am become death; the destroyer of worlds"? Worried about the effect of his creation he determined, in the end, when making the atomic bomb, that it was the job of the scientist to make something if he or she could. Society can then determine what might be done with it.

Over the weekend,BBC Click ran an interviewwith two of the developers of the dark wallet, which is an application for the cryptocurrency bitcoin. The idea behind the dark wallet, simply put, is this: bitcoin transactions, although hard to track and monitor, are not entirely anonymous because the block chain keeps a public record of every bitcoin transaction made. Dark wallet obscures who is behind each transaction by using clever stealth addresses and a decentralised mixing system. While not making transactions perfectly anonymous, it's a significant step forward.

Click showed an unverified Islamist blog, which suggested the terrorist group IS (Islamic State, formerly ISIS) has potentially expressed an interest in dark wallet. The blog read dark wallet could "send millions of dollars worth of bitcoin instantly from the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, Ghana, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, or wherever else, right to the pockets of the Mujahideen". It is, read the blog, "simple, easy, and we ask Allah to hasten its usage for us". Amir Taaki, the chief developer behind the dark wallet, was quizzed by Click about whether he'd be comfortable with ISIS using the technology he'd built. With admirable honesty he replied: "Yeah." Adding, "you can't stop people using technology because of your personal bias. We stand for free and open systems where anybody can participate, no matter who you are".

Many in the (sometimes vocal and aggressive) bitcoin community were unhappyabout how this had been reported, arguing that it was unfair to saddle bitcoin with IS. IS after all, uses plenty of other technologies far more than bitcoin -- so why focus on this?

It's a fair criticism -- Bitcoin, and certainly the complicated dark wallet, is hardly the most useful system of financing for a group like IS given its other means. And as I've written elsewhere, Bitcoin has several invaluable societal benefits: such as transforming the wasteful and expensive system of making international remittance payments. Yet the BBC was correct to cover it. Almost anything IS does is newsworthy at the moment: especially when it comes to technology. That's particularly the case when the creator himself doesn't seem bothered by it.

To understand the reason Taaki was relaxed requires you to understand his ideology. I know something of this because I've spent a fair amount of time with him -- including atCalafouin Spain, where he first started work on the project -- and I wrote about the dark wallet in my bookThe Dark Net.Bitcoin advocates sit on a spectrum of belief, and many of them see the currency as a way of improving financial services. But Taaki, like some within the Bitcoin community is more radical, and could be loosely described as either a cryptoanarchist orcypherpunk. He is not interested in building neutral but effective technology: he sees dark wallet as a political project, a direct way of undermining state power. He believes that powerful encryption systems, like the dark wallet, can guarantee individual liberty in a more reliable way than any manmade law -- and he's hopeful it will help precipitate the collapse of modern national states.

With this radical world view, dark wallet has pitted itself directly against the more mainstream bits of the community. "Many prominent Bitcoin developers are actively in collusion with members of law enforcement and seeking approval from government legislators," read the original dark wallet blurb. "We believe this is not in Bitcoin users' self-interest, and instead serves wealthy business interests that make up the self-titled Bitcoin Foundation." This divide -- between those who see Bitcoin as a political or a financial project -- runs through the heart of the community. In fact Taaki is probably closer to Bitcoin's libertarian origins than all those suited businessmen currently falling over themselves to build bitcoin ATM machines or invest venture capital in the currency.The currency's creator Satoshi Nakamoto's posts on the Cryptography mailing list were littered with his libertarian outlook -- and before that Bitcoin's roots can be traced to the 90s libertarian cypherpunks, and cryptography geniusDavid Chaum.

Taaki knows that people will use the dark wallet to do bad things. He has, I am sure, no desire whatsoever to help IS -- who are the apotheosis of his conception of individual liberty. Yet his overarching ambition is to create tools to secure freedom and defang the state. Some people will suffer in the meantime.

This question will keep coming up. Bitcoin protocols can do a lot more than currency exchange. There are social media platforms based on the same distributed system as Bitcoin, making them hard to close down, and its users very difficult to trace. Especially post-Snowdon, hundreds of people around the world have been working on a dazzling array of software to allow people to stay anonymous online. The direction of travel is towards more decentralisation, more powerful encryption, more distributed systems for anyone who wants it: Jitsi, Jabber, Darkmail, Mailpile, and more. That is good news for anyone who cares about freedom and democracy, especially in the less savoury parts of the world. But I daresay IS will be early adopters -- as will other people looking to stay hidden for nefarious purposes.

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Bitcoin and dark wallet could be used by terrorists. So what?

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