The NSA Is Tracking Bitcoin Users, According to Snowden Papers

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) used its vast powers to spy on and track down bitcoin users globally, according to classified documents released by Edward Snowden. The revelations send a chilling message to crypto investors that their activity may be monitored by federal agencies under the guise of anti-money laundering programs.

Deep State Targets Bitcoin Users

The spy agency used sophisticated techniques to monitor senders and receivers of digital currency as far back as 2013, according to several memos that were published by The Intercept. The classified reports also seemed to indicate that the NSA may have collected information from users’ personal computers.

The reports obscure the identity of the agents involved in the investigation, referring to them only with code names. One particularly telling passage was taken from a weekly report dated Mar. 2-8, 2013:

“S2F214 [the agent] is hoping to use the access for their mission of looking at organized crime and cyber targets that utilize online e-currency services to move and launder money. These illicit finance networks provide user access to international monetary systems, while providing a high-degree of anonymity.”

In a Mar. 15, 2013 report, the spy agency referred to bitcoin as the “#1 priority”.

Julian Assange commented on the newly leaked documents, where he called out various media platforms for neglecting to follow the WikiLeaks model

According to the documents, the NSA monitored bitcoin using a program called MONEYROCKET, which gathered information from the Middle East, Asia, Europe and South America. Interestingly, the reports show that bitcoin wasn’t the only area targeted by the NSA. Liberty Reserve, a now defunct digital currency service, also received careful attention.

Based in Costa Rica, Liberty Reserve was shut down in 2013 by the United States government for criminal activity. Prosecutors appealed to the controversial Patriot Act to dissolve the entity following an investigation with 16 other countries. The platform’s founder, Arthur Budovsky, and six others were charged with money laundering.

Financial Privacy

The recent documents released by Snowden sent a clear warning sign to cryptocurrency users that their financial information could be intercepted by big government agencies. Although some news outlets have used the documents to question bitcoin’s privacy features, many within the crypto community know that the original blockchain isn’t necessarily the most anonymous.

In fact, dark web criminals are beginning to disavow bitcoin for one of the many privacy coins in circulation today. Chief among them are Zcash and Monero. A report released in February also drew attention to the meteoric rise of Litecoin on the dark web.

Assessed purely in terms of privacy, many believe Zcash provides the best protections. Unlike other protocols, Zcash uses advanced encryption to obscure the sender’s address.

Privacy isn’t the only consideration cyber criminals weigh when deciding which cryptocurrency to exploit. According to Recorded Future researchers, transaction fees and speed are also important factors.

Disclaimer: The author owns bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies. He holds investment positions in the coins, but does not engage in short-term or day-trading.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.



Chief Editor to and Contributor to, Sam Bourgi has spent the past nine years focused on economics, markets and cryptocurrencies. His work has been featured in and cited by some of the world's leading newscasts, including Barron's, CBOE and Forbes. Avid crypto watchers and those with a libertarian persuasion can follow him on twitter at @hsbourgi