Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency

This is a black book cover with the words Tracers in the Dark on the left side, and The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency on the right.

Book written by Andy Greenberg

Book review by Rick Howard 

Bottom Line

I recommend this nonfiction book for the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame.


This is the best cyber crime book I have read in the last seven years. I would put it in the same cybercrime Hall of Fame bucket as 2012's "We Are Anonymous" and "Kingpin,"  2014's "Spam Nation," and 2016's "Future Crimes." The author, Andy Greenberg, is a longtime tech and security writer and has been working for Wired magazine since 2014. He's also an author of three books, one a New York Times bestseller in 2012 called "This Machine Kills Secrets" about WikiLeaks, a second in 2019, a cybersecurity canon hall of fame book called "Sandworm," about the Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine from 2014 to 2017, and now, this book.

According to Greenberg, "The book is about the advent of cryptocurrency tracing as a law enforcement investigative technique." What that means is that if you had any notion that cryptocurrency transactions in general,  and Bitcoin transactions in particular, were anonymous, Greenberg completely shatters that idea. He documents the research of Sarah Meiklejohn (a university researcher), Tigran Gambaryan (an IRS Special Agent), Chris Janczewski (an IRS Special Agent) and Michael Gronecker (The CEO of Chainalysis) and then tells the stories of how law enforcement used those research techniques to investigate some of the most successful cyber crime operations in recent years.

  • Silk Road: An criminal marketplace that at its peak was "moving $15 million in narcotics annually.
  • The criminals behind the Colonial Pipeline attacks.
  • Mt. Gox (The Bitcoin Exchange): One of the biggest players, now in bankruptcy because criminals stole $350 Million in bitcoin.
  • BTC-e: "Mysterious bitcoin-trading platform that seemed to exist nowhere and be run by no one."
  • Alpha Bay: Another criminal marketplace where at its peak, had over 200,000 users and over 400,000 listings for drugs, weapons, stolen data, and other illegal goods.
  • Welcome to Video: Cryptocurrency funded Child Sexual Abuse Materials (CSAM) market.
  • Hansa: Another criminal marketplace.

As Greenberg tells the stories, he also sheds some light on just how Bitcoin actually works (Change addresses, multiple inputs, Bitcoin Nodes, Bitcoin tumblers, Wallet Fees), the techniques researchers use to find the criminals behind illicit Bitcoin transactions (Peeling Chains, Clustering) and some early days trivia about the creator of Bitcoin: Satoshi Nakamoto. He also talks about new cryptocurrency systems (Privacy Coins) where the creators specifically designed the system to thwart block chain analysis like Monero and ZCash.

The cryptocurrency world is a fascinating place occupied by utopian minded libertines concerned with privacy and trying to rid the world of "evil" financial institution middle men but also amoral criminals who try to hide within those systems for profit regardless of the victims they leave behind. Greenberg sheds a giant spotlight on that world and the law enforcement agencies  (IRS, DEA, FBI, DOJ, Canada's RCMP, and Europol) and commercial firms (Chainalysis) investigating it.   

It is a fantastic read.