Book – Tracers in the Dark

Tracers in the Dark by Andy Greenberg book cover

Steve Taylor-Bryant once again delves into his love of non-fiction and stumbles upon a story that could be straight out of a Hollywood studio as he reads Andy Greenberg’s Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency...

Over the last decade, a single innovation has massively fuelled digital black markets: cryptocurrency. Crime lords inhabiting lawless corners of the internet have operated more freely—whether in drug dealing, money laundering, or human trafficking—than their analogue counterparts could have ever dreamed of. By transacting not in dollars or pounds but in currencies with anonymous ledgers, overseen by no government, beholden to no bankers, these black marketeers have sought to rob law enforcement of their chief method of cracking down on illicit finance: following the money.

But what if the centrepiece of this dark economy held a secret, fatal flaw? What if their currency wasn’t so cryptic after all? An investigator using the right mixture of technical wizardry, financial forensics, and old-fashioned persistence could uncover an entire world of wrongdoing.

Tracers in the Dark is a story of crime and pursuit unlike any other. With unprecedented access to the major players in federal law enforcement and private industry, veteran cybersecurity reporter Andy Greenberg tells an astonishing saga of criminal empires built and destroyed. He introduces an IRS agent with a defiant streak, a Bitcoin-tracing Danish entrepreneur, and a colourful ensemble of hardboiled agents and prosecutors as they delve deep into the crypto-underworld. The result is a thrilling, globe-spanning story of dirty cops, drug bazaars, trafficking rings, and the biggest takedown of an online narcotics market in the history of the Internet.

Utterly of our time, Tracers in the Dark is a cat-and-mouse story and a tale of a technological one-upmanship. Filled with canny manoeuvring and shocking twists, it answers a provocative question: How would some of the world’s most brazen criminals behave if they were sure they could never get caught? 

I knew a little about Bitcoin before reading Tracers in the Dark, but it turns out the little I knew was wrong anyway, as I was one of those who thought this relatively new techno currency helped with anonymity, or at the very least privacy, but I was wrong. I don’t mind being wrong, I am the first to admit when I don’t know something, or understand something, and that’s what I truly love about Andy Greenberg’s work. He also admits when he doesn’t quite grasp something and so his investigative juices flow and then his top class journalistic brain finds the truth in the subject. Greenberg is a great journalist, I read a fair bit of his stuff for Wired, but it was his first two books, This Machine Kills Secrets and then Sandworm, that led to me diving into a dark tale about internet money.

Tracers in the Dark is a remarkable achievement. It is a stunningly professionally researched and executed work of journalism, giving every side to the story equal credence and shining a light in those often dark places, but it also lends itself to an inevitable visual media. It is a rare feat to write something of journalistic importance that could also be a Hollywood movie but Tracers is put together in such a way that it would be an excellent documentary template. It also could be taken to the screen a la The Big Short by Michael Lewis, with a comedic but interesting look at a complex problem spoon fed to an audience by a glamourous ensemble. Take the character of IRS investigator Tigran Gambaryan, who is involved pretty much in everything the book covers, from taking down The Silk Road and its creator Ross Ulbricht, through the success of the operation to take down and arrest Alpha Bay leader Alexandre Cazes, to the removal of a prominent dark web site of vile child abuse images and videos. Along this journey, Gambaryan learns all about tracing Bitcoin via the Blockchain, arrest both criminals and rogue law enforcement, before joining a cryptocurrency firm himself as his legal profession came to an end, and a drama or thriller about Gambaryan has to be being discussed in an executives office in a studio somewhere.

Whilst the journalistic elements of the book, from the fact that Bitcoin is transparent and not hidden and secret, as is assumed by most, and the interviews with those involved in tracing the currency, to the morality and ethical arguments about privacy and possible future governmental abuse of warrantless searches, are all very well written with the essential people on both sides of an argument given ample opportunity to say their piece, it is the way that Greenberg threads it all together in a palatable non techno-babble way that makes Tracers in the Dark such a compelling read. I doubt I will read a better book than this one this year, I doubt I'll read a better book on the subject matter ever.

Image/synopsis – Amazon

Find Steve on Twitter as @STBwrites

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