Follow the money.
Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Louise Matsakis
After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month turned violent, a number of tech companies including GoDaddy and Cloudflare stopped supporting the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website. It now struggles to maintain a presence on the surface web. But its staff are still steadily raising funds: Monday, one recently-created Bitcoin wallet associated with the site received a donation for more than $100 USD. Tuesday, another, older Bitcoin wallet received a similarly-sized donation.
Though Bitcoin's value fluctuates daily, the Daily Stormer retains around $80,000 in the digital currency, and has received more than $200,000 since it started accepting it back in 2014, according to Bitcoin transactions listed in wallets controlled by the site. The Daily Stormer isn't alone: Racists have been raising significant funds via Bitcoin for years.
Now, a new Twitter bot created this month by security researcher John Bambenek is tracking just how much money they're collecting. It monitors a handful or so Bitcoin wallets associated with white supremacists, and reports when a donation is made. It also tweets updates on the amount of money Bitcoin wallets connected to hate groups have saved up.
Bambenek told me on a phone call that he made the Bitcoin-tracking bot in part because he rarely "gets to code interesting short-term things with impact." And, he said, "Fuck those guys."
The bot's ultimate purpose is to bring attention to the amount of cash that hate groups are able to rake in, and to put pressure on the organizations that continue to allow them to accept it. "I want to make it difficult for them to raise it, store it, and spend it," Bambenek said. "We're really focusing on disrupting their money flows."
Bambenek was surprised to learn that a significant amount of money is being raised by white supremacists, he said. "There's really money in saying racist shit," Bambenek told me.
One drawback to the bot is that the Daily Stormer and other organizations it tracks, like white supremacist group Vanguard America, can simply open new Bitcoin wallets. Bambenek doesn't think the possibility is a problem: "Weev [the alias of notorious hacker and racist Andrew Auernheimer] could rotate wallets six ways to Sunday but all the dumbasses that fund him are barely able to figure out this Bitcoin mumbo jumbo in the first place," he said. In other words, many people struggle with using Blockchain technology, compared to more mainstream services like PayPal. Changing wallets often could simply impede donations, at least from Bambenek's perspective.
Many people who use Bitcoin rely on services like Coinbase, which controls Bitcoin wallets. Earlier this month, a Twitter account associated with the Daily Stormer tweeted that Coinbase was deleting accounts who tried to send Bitcoin to the neo-Nazi site (the company declined to comment on specific accounts). Bambenek hopes shedding light on the money that white supremacists are raising will force companies that help them get funds to stop lending support. Ultimately, however, bitcoin's decentralized nature means that white supremacists can find ways around using the companies that may try to kick them off.
Bambenek's Twitter bot was modeled on similar ones created to track Bitcoin wallets associated with the WannaCry ransomware attack that happened in May. He plans to eventually publicly release the code behind the bot, so that it can be modified to track other groups or individuals collecting funds via Bitcoin in the future.