Security

WikiLeaks Asks For Anonymous Bitcoin Donations

Jun. 14 2011 - 8:01 pm | 5,234 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

WikiLeaks was built on the idea of anonymous, untraceable transfers of digital information. Now it wants to fill its coffers with equally untraceable injections of digital cash.

On Tuesday the secret-spilling group announced via Twitter that it will now be accepting donations of Bitcoins, a wholly digital and theoretically untraceable currency.

As I wrote in this feature about Bitcoin for the magazine in April, Bitcoins are created with cryptographic functions and then stored and exchanged without the help of banks. So in theory the currency prevents any institution from tracking the flow of money, and prevents any bank from either blocking transfers to a certain party or freezing anyone’s account. Both of those problems have struck WikiLeaks in the last six months, as Visa, Mastercard, and Bank of America have all cut off donations to the group and PayPal and the banking arm of the Swiss postal service PostFinance have both frozen WikiLeaks-associated funds.

Showing its usual flair for controversy, WikiLeaks has adopted Bitcoins just as public debate over the crypto-currency has begun to heat up. Earlier this month Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin called for the shutdown of Silk Road, an anonymous marketplace that uses Bitcoins to sell contraband, including a wide range of illegal drugs. In his public statements regarding the site, Schumer focused his ire on Silk Road but also referred to Bitcoin as “an online form of money laundering used to disguise the source of money, and to disguise who’s both selling and buying the drug.”

When I spoke last week with Gavin Andresen, one of the lead developers on the open-source and decentralized project, he countered Schumer’s criticisms by comparing Bitcoins to other pseudo-currencies like prepaid gift cards and frequent flier miles.  ”We feel like innocent bystanders,” he says. “We can’t control what Bitcoins are used for: great things and things that aren’t so great. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Plenty of legal businesses accept Bitcoins, after all, in exchange for all sorts of merchandise. But so does LulzSec, the donation-funded hacker group that has been rampaging through dozens of data breaches targeting PBS, Sony, the U.S. Senate and others since it emerged last month.

Bitcoins’ independence from banks is only one of the features that make them attractive. They’re also created at a set pace designed to prevent inflation, which has helped fuel rapid growth in their valuation over the short period since they’ve become widely used. In just the time since my April article, Bitcoins have jumped from an exchange rate of around one to a one to close to 20 dollars to one bitcoin, a rate that some critics say shows the  currency’s unstability.

WikiLeaks has been actively trying to raise funds in recent weeks, even auctioning off eight seats at a lunch with founder Julian Assange and philosopher Slavoj Zizek. The current price of a seat ranges from $573 to $835 with five days left in the auction.

With Bitcoin WikiLeaks may be simply trying to solicit donations in a form that it believes is set to appreciate, or it may trying to offer its donors a way to give without revealing their sympathy for a controversial site. Either way, its new funding move will only offer more anti-Bitcoin ammunition to Schumer, who has never been much of a WikiLeaks fan.


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  1. collapse expand

    As usual the denizens of “The8th Continent” [the8th.org] have already mapped out their future plans regarding elimination of involvement with the physical world from which they were germinated. WikiLeaks for what its worth is shielding or attempting to, donors from the very scrutiny they create.
    I for one applaud the use of actual digital currency, having been a proponent of the MONDEX scheme in the mid 1990′s. The glances of the future we are creating are becoming frequent and interesting
    As for lunch with Assange, I rather have lunch with you Andy.

  2. collapse expand

    In your summary on exchange rate fluctuations, you have the exchange rate backwards. It isn’t 20 Bitcoins to $1. It’s $20 to a Bitcoin.

  3. collapse expand

    bitcoin donations to fixed bitcoin addresses aren’t really untraceable or anonymous..

    here’s a running total of all the wikileaks bitcoin donations and where those bitcoins move to:
    http://blockexplorer.com/address/1HB5XMLmzFVj8ALj6mfBsbifRoD4miY36v

    this is public information that anyone running a bitcoin client can access.

    as of right now, wikileaks has received 64.57660524 bitcoins in donation.

    • collapse expand

      Jose,

      Perhaps I should have called Bitcoins pseudonymous rather than anonymous.(though if a pseudonym can be changed at will, is that really any different from being anonymous?)

      Bitcoin donations can indeed be traced to the spender’s address. But Bitcoin users can change those addresses whenever they like, and they’re not associated with a location, name, IP address or other identifying details. That makes it difficult to trace them to an actual person. If you create a new address and only send WikiLeaks Bitcoins from that address, you haven’t revealed anything, right?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        well, perhaps it’s just confusing to me when you say “So in theory the currency prevents any institution from tracking the flow of money, and prevents any bank from either blocking transfers to a certain party or freezing anyone’s account.”

        it’s quite the opposite. the flow of bitcoins that have gone to wikileaks @ that fixed bitcoin donation address can be tracked forever by anyone. Any transfer out of that address to another bitcoin address is public and can be tracked and so forth..

        the pseudo-anonymous feature of bitcoins only comes from using a different bitcoin address for every transaction and no one knowing for sure which bitcoin addresses belong to whom. By using a fixed bitcoin donation address, all of the wikileaks bitcoin donations can be easily tracked, since the connection between wikileaks and their fixed bitcoin donation address is obvious.

        it’s correct that _who_ is donating to them is still anonymous.. but the money they have received in donations and where that money goes afterwards can be tracked by anyone..

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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About Me

I've covered the cybersecurity and privacy beat for Forbes since 2007, with frequent detours into digital miscellania like switches, servers, supercomputers, search, e-books, online censorship, robots, and China. My favorite stories are the ones where non-fiction resembles science fiction. My favorite sources usually have the word "research" in their titles.

Since I joined Forbes, this job has taken me from an autonomous car race in the California desert all the way to Beijing, where I wrote the first English-language cover story on the Chinese search billionaire Robin Li for Forbes Asia. Black hats, white hats, cyborgs, cyberspies, idiot savants and even CEOs are welcome to email me at agreenberg (at) forbes.com.

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