Many people assume Bitcoin transactions are anonymous. That is not the case by any means, even though it is possible for users to remain pseudonymous at all times. That being said, initiatives are underway to successfully unmask parties to Bitcoin transactions when needed. It appears a technique is currently deployed on e-commerce websites in the form of ad trackers. Cookies and other data collected by these trackers can reveal the identities of Bitcoin users.
Unmasking Bitcoin Users Through Ad Trackers
It sounds quite strange to think of ad trackers as a way to unmask Bitcoin users. After all, Bitcoin is a fairly transparent currency already, even though it also has a lot of connections to illegal activity as well. Cyber criminals have taken a particular liking to Bitcoin lately, despite its lack of anonymity. While there are other cryptocurrencies better suited for nefarious purposes, they have not gained much ground in the illegal activity sector for the time being. That situation may come to change in the future, though.
It now appears there is a new way to successfully unmask the people behind a particular Bitcoin transaction. This does not bode well for individuals using the world’s most popular cryptocurrency for criminal activity. It turns out ad trackers on e-commerce websites can successfully reveal information on the identities of Bitcoin users. They do not need any special information to do so, as the ad trackers collect cookies and other information already. Up until now, no one has bothered to utilize this approach in order to deanonymize Bitcoin users, but it remains a possibility.
Research on the matter was published last week, explaining how users attempting to hide their identities behind Bitcoin addresses could still be exposed. Virtually every website we use today for online shopping can track user activity, browser information, cookies, and IP addresses. The e-commerce companies store cookies on users’ computers or willingly share data on buyers with advertising companies. According to the new research, a thorough analysis of the information shared with third parties allows profilers to create Bitcoin user profiles.
Many people underestimate just how much information e-commerce platforms collect. This does not just apply to platforms where users are required to register, as first-time visitors are subject to these same tracking methods. Even the most simple browser cookie contains information on the device used, products purchased, items browsed, abandoned carts, email information, and even shipping addresses. There is plenty of information available to link that activity to Bitcoin transactions, even though the user itself remains pseudonymous at all times.
The information collected by ad trackers does not only fall into the hands of e-commerce operators or advertising companies. Skilled hackers and even law enforcement agencies can aggregate data from multiple trackers or advertising agencies. This type of behavior opens the proverbial floodgates to deanonymizing Bitcoin users all over the world. One upside, however, is how they could link suspicious Bitcoin activity to real-world identities and online usernames. This could effectively help reduce Bitcoin-related crimes, although the method might very well be used for other purposes as well.
No one will be surprised to learn that collecting this information from Bitcoin-friendly e-commerce platforms yields the best results. Any website accepting Bitcoin payments can even link specific Bitcoin addresses to existing customers, for example. Of the 130 sites investigated, nearly half had leaked payment information. Virtually all sites grant third-parties script access to some form of payment information. Those sites will most likely become primary targets for institutions specializing in blockchain analysis.