An Arkansas sheriff’s office launched a bitcoin mining pilot program in its Cyber Crimes Division in hopes that the mined bitcoin will help investigators in future crimes on the darknet. In a statement to the press, detective Olin Rankin said the Cyber Crimes Division plans to use bitcoin in the same ways that criminals use bitcoin in undercover operations on the internet. The focus is on one sector of internet crime in particular: the exploitation of children through hidden forums and messageboards.
The public raised questions regarding the program’s purpose and whether or not the mined bitcoin would make any difference in criminal investigations. Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway explained that the Cyber Crimes Division would use bitcoin mining to help keep the public safe. How mining bitcoin will put the department at an advantage remains unknown; spokespersons for the department, for the prosecutor’s office, and for the Division neglected to fully explain what the benefit to mining bitcoin would be. And, as of the announcement, none of the mined bitcoin had been spent or used in any operations.
According to detectives with the Benton County Sheriff Department, they chose to mine bitcoin instead of buy bitcoin because mining bitcoin cost the department less. Not everyone agreed; an individual who had spoken with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette argued that mining bitcoin would cost the taxpayers more. This is especially true if the department plans on mining bitcoin at any reasonable scale. The taxpayers would ultimately be paying for mining hardware and power costs.
Detective David Undiano indicated that the department might use mined bitcoin in child exploitation operations where criminals sold child “pornography” for bitcoin. “People are selling child pornography on the Dark Web and on the Internet. They are accepting bitcoins, not payments,” he said. The implication here, it seems, is that the department needs bitcoin to buy access to child pornography sites or to buy actual images and videos of child abuse.
Glenn Latham, Sheriff Holloway’s opponent in the 2018 election, voiced his concerns about the program. “These machines that they have to use draw a huge amount of power, and cooling costs will go up. That’s at the taxpayers’ expense,” Latham said. Holloway’s rival said that if the Division can prove that bitcoin mining is worth the money, then the department should go for it. “But every taxpayer has the right to know what is going on.” Rankin explained that the department used a single computer to mine bitcoin and the Cyber Crimes Division had no plans to accumulate the cryptocurrency. He equated their current program’s power draw to that of “plugging in another PC.”
Latham argued that law enforcement should go after the “low hanging fruit” online. He has serious doubts that the project will lead or contribute to any arrests when bitcoin itself is only part of the picture. The problem with darknet or online crime, he explained, is that the anonymity offered by Tor costs law enforcement too much money for too little payoff. The investigations often end with nothing to show for them.
“There are easier ways of catching people who are actively hunting children,” he closed.