Most day-to-day crime-fighting gets done at the local level, but when it comes to crypto crime, local law enforcement is not prepared to pick up the slack. Many smaller municipalities don’t have online reporting options, which means you’ll have to talk to a human being—who could decline to write up a report if they don’t find your sob story about a million-dollar cartoon monkey credible or compelling. Asked where someone should turn if their $250 NFT has been stolen, Chan says that while local law enforcement is “definitely” the most appropriate place to go, “whether they’re going to be able to help you or not is another story.”
These types of crimes were inconceivable just a few years ago, but the alarming number of people being harmed by them today need help. “We need to normalize cybercrime as real crime, and we need to normalize getting law enforcement involved,” says Garber. “That means better education on both the consumer end and the law enforcement end.”
The FBI is trying to do its part, but Chan says, “We’re in the crawling phase, before we even walk.” He notes that internal crypto training for the FBI’s own employees was only recently released. “In terms of a national-level training for state, local, or tribal agencies,” he says, “I know that we’re working on it. I don’t have any timeline for that, unfortunately.”
Meanwhile, in recognition of the fact that traditional law enforcement often lacks the resources and know-how to solve crypto mysteries, many government agencies are turning to private companies that hold themselves out as experts in blockchain analysis. Chan says the FBI tries not to “outsource” any of its investigative work, “because if we’re outsourcing, that means it’s another entity that would have to testify in a court of law,” and most juries are going to be more inclined to trust a special agent than an employee of some startup no one has ever heard of. Chan has agents on his team doing their own blockchain analysis, working in tandem with private platforms to trace stolen virtual assets. “At least on the federal level, I feel pretty good about our cryptocurrency tracking and analysis,” he says. But, once again, things are “not quite as firm at the state and local level.”
Those state and local entities may not have the expertise to be responsible stewards of the tools private companies are making available. And as we’ve seen with private prisons and military contractors, privatizing traditional law enforcement functions isn’t cost-free. State actors investigating crimes are subject to more stringent accountability and oversight mechanisms than private actors. Criminal defendants have raised questions about the reliability and admissibility of private blockchain analysis evidence. Legal remedies for those harmed by private security operatives are also different from those available to individuals harmed by government actors. Ultimately, profit-motivated corporations are not obligated to care about the public interest, and they are not necessarily obligated to uphold civil rights like privacy.
If local law enforcement is falling short, we need to fix law enforcement, not consign the problem to tech companies beholden to no one but their investors. Departments should start taking crimes involving even the goofiest-sounding NFTs seriously. To develop the skills they need, officers need to work these cases. Chan says his office is currently working a handful of NFT hijacking cases, even though it’s not clear they would meet the FBI’s ordinary financial damage threshold, “just because we need to get some muscle memory going on these types of cases.” Investigators at all levels should be doing the same.