LONDON (InsideBitcoins) — Inciting fear by exploiting ignorance has long been a tactic employed by cowards and bullies –something ably demonstrated when, according to The Straits Times, blackmailers threatened to release Ebola into the Czech Republic capital Prague unless they were paid 1,000,000 Euro in bitcoin.
Encrypted emails were sent to the highest political offices in the country claiming that they obtained the virus in Liberia and that if they received no answer to their demands, they would issue press releases accusing the Czech government of negligence. The threat received widespread attention in Central Europe, hitting major newsstands and television networks and even drawing comment from Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka who described it as a “Shocking misuse of the current public concern over Ebola in Europe.”
Anywhere in the world, namely Prague
That it was also a shocking misuse of public perception surrounding bitcoin was not mentioned. The Daily Mail was quick to inform us that “Bitcoin is an electronic currency often preferred by blackmailers because it allows them to receive funds that cannot be frozen or reversed by conventional methods once they have been sent. Known as a ‘cyrptocurrency’ because it uses strong encryption to secure transactions, it also provides anonymity. The blackmailers can be almost anywhere in the world to receive the cash.”
Anywhere in the world to receive the money for sure, but they’d have to be in Prague to release the virus.
The whole story was patently absurd; the government of course refused to pay, though they adopted a sensible tone of caution during press interviews. The police set about investigating the matter — blackmail is after all illegal. But few people took the threat seriously. The idea that some group of malcontents had travelled to Liberia, got hold of the incredibly infectious Ebola without somehow infecting themselves and then smuggled it back to Europe undetected was the stuff of Hollywood movies, not reality.
Releasing the virus at any rate would have been difficult; biological warfare on a large scale generally requires weaponization before it is truly effective and if you can afford to do that, you don’t need a 1,000,000 Euros. In all probability the person most likely to be infected would have been the blackmailers themselves.
Bitcoin blackmail for a pittance
Added into the mix was the unlikelihood of anyone wanting to start risk a global epidemic for the sake of a lousy $1,000,000. Terrorists are not comic book villains, they have families, people they love, people they want to protect.
There has been no Ebola outbreak in Central Europe since the deadline for payments passed and as of yet the blackmailers have not been brought to justice. In fact, the only real damage caused was perhaps to the reputation of bitcoin. Once again, the currency has been associated with the murky waters of criminality and the public has been given yet one more reason to flinch at its very mention.
To be clear, bitcoin is not favoured by blackmailers; the Daily Mail must have been confusing it with fiat, a currency that has been involved in just about every blackmail case in human history. Nor is bitcoin untraceable. The currency is digitally stored forever and though there are ways of covering your tracks, bitcoins are not foolproof, especially when dealing with amounts of large value.
At any rate, a Swiss private bank account is only a few hours’ drive from Prague and offers similar levels of anonymity. That the vast majority of bitcoin transactions are used for legitimate purposes was not mentioned.
Ian Jackson is an Inside Bitcoins correspondent based in the U.K.
Photo credit: azrainman