Are Cryptocurrency Transactions Actually Anonymous?

Since the original 2008 white paper introducing blockchain technology, bitcoin and other cryptocurrency transactions have been touted as completely anonymous and private. But how anonymous are crypto transactions really?

Earlier this year, $3.6 billion in bitcoin was seized from a Manhattan couple who were arrested and charged with money laundering in connection with a 2016 hack on the Hong Kong cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex. It was the largest financial seizure in the Justice Department’s history.

Law enforcement went to great lengths to trace the illicit funds, including tracking the stolen bitcoin through a complicated web of transactions spanning multiple countries. It took six years, but authorities eventually caught up.

More recently, researchers have demonstrated traceability via unintentional patterns in bitcoin’s transactional data — the bigger a data set gets, the more patterns show up. And patterns can be identified and tracked.

Because cryptocurrency allows for direct peer-to-peer transactions made via the internet, the idea is that only two parties are involved in the activity. No banks, governments or intermediaries are necessary.

Although this appears to set up the perfect framework for privacy and anonymity, this year’s bust and other examples paint a different picture of crypto transactions.