The US Military Wants to Disrupt Terrorist Bounties With Virtual Currencies

Terrorist hunting needs a 21st century overhaul, according to the government.

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Jul 21 2015, 4:36pm

Image: Flickr/Japanexperterna.com

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"High stakes" doesn't even begin to describe the game of global terrorist hunting. Information on the location of a wanted person can net tipsters millions of dollars in some cases. But if you think that hushed telephone conversations and cash seem more like a relic of the 1980s than a product of the age of cryptocurrencies and near-ubiquitous smartphones, you're not alone: the US government agrees.

In February, the US Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO)—an agency that develops tech for battling terrorists—submitted an open call for anyone to propose a system that would allow the US government to instantaneously pay out "tip-sized amounts of virtual currencies" to people with information on a wanted person's whereabouts.

According to the filing, the CTTSO also wants to switch from the "telephone tipster" model to one that crowdsources geo-tagged photos, texts, and videos with an app. "Current practice ignores the 'street-level' community information that may provide—for cents rather than thousands of dollars—indicators of instability and violence of interest to the [US Government] and its foreign partners," the filing states.

"If you start with $50 for a bit of information, you get some experience on how it works and build trust"

The biggest advantage of this system would be greater trust between the government and its informants, Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University who studies bounty hunters, said.

"What I do like about this proposal is that it's a way of building up trust between the people paying the bounties, and the people giving the information," said Tabarrok. "I think a lot of people in Pakistan or Yemen, wherever it happens to be, it's hard for them to conceive that they might get $25 million from the US government. It doesn't seem realistic. But if you start with $50 for a bit of information, you get some experience on how it works and build trust."

The system should also make use of the blockchain, the publicly viewable distributed ledger that contains every Bitcoin transaction ever made, the proposal says. While the filing doesn't clearly say why the blockchain should be used, it's worth noting that the technology's greatest virtue is often seen as the trust that it builds. Everything that goes on the blockchain, like a proof of payment for a bounty, stays there forever.

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Virtual currencies might be new to the government terrorist bounty scene, but crowdsourcing information on targets isn't. In June of this year, it was reported that the US Air Force used social media posts by ISIS members—the group is infamous for its use of Twitter and other online platforms—to track down targets and bomb them.

Bounties are also not exactly foreign to Bitcoin. When a popular darknet market for illicit goods disappeared overnight earlier this year, leading some to speculate that the administrators had absconded with everyone's money, a Bitcoin bounty fund was started and quickly amassed thousands of dollars worth of coins. Bitcoinbountyhunter.com is a service that specializes in paying out bounties for captured criminals.

It's worth noting that as crazy as all this sounds, it's very forward-looking. Open solicitations for crazy new ideas are commonly filed by government agencies, including DARPA. Nobody may take up the call. As for who might be interested, I reached out to ChangeTip, a popular Bitcoin-based online tipping platform, to see if they'd heard of the filing. A representative told me they're more interested in love than war.

But if someone does take the bait, a contract will be awarded in October for the government's new high-tech system for hunting terrorists.