When the FBI shut down the Silk Road, an internet black market, in October it also seized the accused owner’s assets and inadvertently became one of the wealthiest bitcoin operators in the world.
When the FBI shut down the notorious online marketplace it made international headlines and began a worldwide discussion about how stable the future of bitcoin really is. Investigators have admitted that they seized hundreds of thousands of bitcoins from the Silk Road and its operator Dread Pirate Roberts, allegedly the online persona of one Ross Ulbricht.
A new report from Wired magazine indicates that the FBI is now in control of two addresses, or wallets, holding bitcoin worth as much as $120 million. That total would make the law enforcement agency the second-largest bitcoin holder in the world behind only Satoshi Nakamoto, the currency’s inventor, who is thought to have mined one million bitcoin in the technology’s earliest days.
There is a total of 12 million bitcoins in circulation and the FBI’s haul from the Silk Road raid means the bureau has more than even Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. The Winklevoss twins, who became famous when they sued Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea for Facebook, said in July of this year that they had taken control of roughly one percent of all bitcoins.
As of October, the FBI owned 1.5 percent of all the world’s bitcoin, Forbes reported. Less than a quarter-million people own a single bitcoin, although the number of accounts holding one bitcoin has grown from 159,916 to 246,377.
While the relatively new cryptocurrency does have many legitimate and quickly growing uses, bitcoin is best-known for its popularity with criminal and shadowy internet figures because it is nearly impossible to track. Bitcoin was required for all transactions on the Silk Road, where customers could find illegal drugs, child pornography, weapons, or a contract killer, among other listings.
One of the FBI’s two wallets holds a fraction of Dread Pirate Roberts’ personal fund, worth approximately $28.5 million. After some difficulty caused by Roberts’ encryption, the FBI infiltrated the private wallet. Yet that total is only an estimated 20 percent of Roberts’ wallet, with much of his wealth spread across other wallets that the FBI has not been able to compromise.
As Roberts (DPR), Ulbricht is accused of taking a 7 percent commission from each sale on the Silk Road. Two Israeli researchers conducted a study in November finding that DPR-operated accounts only received income in certain months of the year, implying that DPR made deposits to different accounts throughout the year.
“Assuming that DPR continued to receive at least some commissions from Silk Road during these months,” the researchers wrote, “it seems likely that he was simply using a different computer during these periods, which the FBI had not found or was unable to penetrate.”