An anonymous poster published a messageclaiming to be in possession of all of Mitt and Ann Romney’s tax records for several of the most recent tax years, demanding $1 million in ransom, to be delivered in bitcoins. The letter stated that an encrypted form of the documents had been sent to all major media outlets. The Secret Service confirmedthat a letter as well as a flash drive containing encrypted files had been received at and subsequently confiscated from both Republican and Democratic party offices.
The perpetrator threatened that if a specified bitcoin address does not have a net value of at least $1 million at some point between now and September 28, the encryption key to the documents will be released, opening the records up for all to see. If the money is received, “the keys to unlock the data will be purged and what ever is inside the documents will remain a secret forever.”
The blackmail message has another twist: as the message itself describes the rules, “And the same time, the other interested parties will be allowed to compete with you. For those that DO want the documents released will have an different address to send to. If $1,000,000 USD is sent to this account below first; then the encryption keys will be made available to the world right away. So this is an equal opportunity for the documents to remain locked away forever or to be exposed before the September 28 deadline. Who-ever is the winner does not matter to us.”
So far, the two addresses combined have received a combined value of over 1 BTC, some of it undoubtedly from enthusiastic individuals who are eager to see what Mitt Romney’s tax accountants have been up to. However, it is important to note that there is no proof that the information has been leaked at all. The files could easily be random data and the extortionist could simply be a clever fraud sitting there, waiting for eager activists to donate money to a pool that they think is going toward the goal of financial transparency. A statement by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a firm mentioned in the letter, statingthat there was no evidence that any unauthorized access was made, lends further credence to this possibility. However, the possibility that such a fraud will lead to any significant donations is exceedingly small. No Bitcoin charity to date has managed to raise anything more than about $40,000. Given that there is not even a money-back policy in case the funds do not reach their goal, the ultraminiscule probability that the donations would reach $1 million becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even if this particular case of Bitcoin extortion turns out to be a hoax, it is important to keep in mind that the next one may not be. Transferring money has always been the hardest part of any extortion operation. An easy-to-use and nearly untraceable method to do so may increase the ease of such a means of making profit considerably. Extortion will not always come in the form of something as trivial as blackmail either; a sniper asking a billionaire for a fee of $1,000 per day if he wants all of his family to be able to venture outside of a secure bunker and live is entirely possible. Assassination markets have been around as a science-fiction concept for decades, but the sheer ease with which money can now be transferred is bringing such ideas far closer to reality than was ever imagined possible.
Perhaps the only option that society may have is to simply accept this new reality, but choose to see the good as well as the bad. Thanks to Bitcoin, sites like Wikileaks can now receive anonymous donations even if the entire traditional payments bureaucracy has turned against them, helping to promote government and corporate transparency at a level that was never before thought possible.
Although the tools of communication and financial privacy are granting the small thieves an unprecedented ability to carry out their business with impunity, the large thieves that have so far been able to hide in the bureaucratic shadows of governments and large corporations are finding themselves more and more thrown into the limelight. This is the world we are moving towards: one that is perhaps more anarchic, and in some respects more dangerous, but one that is at the same time more just.