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The Great Crypto-Cop Brain Drain

In the course of a decade as a special agent with the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Tigran Gambaryan⁩ has seen them all. 

From plundered crypto exchange Mt Gox, to dark-net marketplace Silk Road and the corrupt cops stealing its funds, to child pornography site Welcome to Video, to the scam involving the hacking of 130 VIP Twitter profiles, Gambaryan was the point man in nearly every major investigation involving bitcoin or cryptocurrency. “I'm a dinosaur in the crypto world,” he says. “When I first started, Silk Road was one of the only places where you could spend your bitcoins, other than buying pizza.”

Gambaryan⁩ had to teach himself how to follow breadcrumbs on blockchains, the digital, obfuscated, but public networks where cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether are traded.

Blockchain investigation was a new field, for which the tools were initially few and rudimentary. At the same time, it was familiar terrain. “I was a financial investigator. My thing had always been ‘Follow the money,’” Gambaryan⁩ says. Following that mantra he would work his way to the weak link in a chain of transactions; often, that was an account with a big cryptocurrency exchange, which in some cases could help him ID the suspect. “I was one of the first people to start sending law enforcement requests to crypto exchanges,” Gambaryan says. 

In 2021, the tables turned: He joined Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, as its vice president of global intelligence and investigations. Gambaryan is now on the other side of the crypto fence, trying to spot bad behaviour on the exchange and fielding requests from law enforcement around the world. Since joining Binance, he has been busy trying to track down the people behind SQUID, a cryptocurrency scam named after—but not affiliated with—Netflix’s blockbuster series Squid Game.

Gambaryan⁩ did not take the leap alone. He was just one member of a dream team of crypto investigators Binance brought on board from law enforcement in 2021, including Gambaryan’s IRS confrere Matthew Price, former US Treasury investigator Greg Monahan, and Europol’s dark-web boffin Nils Andersen-Röed. Another hire, Aron Akbiyikian, once worked as a digital-crime-focused detective in Mariposa County, California. “There's a little bit of a brain drain that is happening,” Gambaryan says. “There's a massive exodus of special-agent experts in the field of cryptocurrency who have left government agencies and joined the cryptocurrency industry. Everyone's gone basically.”

Predictably, some crypto gumshoes have joined a budding gaggle of forensics companies, which combine proprietary digital tools and traditional investigative skills to assist governments and companies with crypto-related investigations. That is, for instance, the case of Beth Bisbee, head of US investigations at Chainalysis, one of the leading outfits. 

Until 2021, Bisbee was a cryptocurrency specialist for the Drug Enforcement Administration. But after helping the DEA grok blockchain research—and leveraging her capabilities to crack cases—Bisbee says her work started feeling “a little bit stagnant.” The DEA was focused on drug crime, but she knew that crypto chicanery extended well beyond that sphere. 

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“I was hungry for more. Chainalysis presented itself; it's a place where I could still support the mission, just on a wider scale,” Bisbee says. Her colleague, Scott Johnston, who joined Chainalysis as an outreach manager in 2019 after a career as an investigator with London’s Metropolitan Police, tells a similar tale of impatience. “At the Met we were facing top-tier-level criminals, but we were going up against them with the very bare minimum of resources and capabilities,” he says. “I was becoming a bit disillusioned with my job.”

But it is not just investigation-focused companies like Chainalysis getting the cream of the crypto-cop crop. Besides Binance, other exchanges have fully sleuthed up. American exchange Coinbase, for instance, employs at least six people with a history of employment in places such as the Met, CIA, FBI, and the Lithuanian Police, according to LinkedIn data. One wonders whether there is anyone left in law enforcement able to delve into crypto crime—or whether the only solution now is to turn to crypto companies for help.

Gambaryan⁩ says that most law enforcement agencies indeed “don't really know how to proceed” when it comes to probing crypto matters. “Essentially, we [at Binance] are here to help them through their investigations,” he says. But he thinks there is still plenty of talent in law enforcement.

“When I was in government we did a lot of liaison work with other countries and other law enforcement agencies,” he says. “We trained a lot of people around the world on how to investigate cryptocurrency.”

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of WIRED UK magazine.

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