Get Our NewsletterWIRED’s biggest stories delivered to your inbox. Bitcoin sign in was sent a small, sleek mining device manufactured by the now-defunct Butterfly Labs.
Here’s what happened to WIRED’s 13 Bitcoins—and to the millions of others that have faced the same fate. Stefan Antonowicz, WIRED’s then-head of engineering, set up the miner. When we received that Butterfly miner, we had a new ethical question: What do you do with the proceeds of a review device that essentially prints money? First, it’s probably worth explaining how WIRED accrued its six-figure Bitcoin fortune. While fiat currencies, like the dollar, rely on banks and government regulators, Bitcoin runs on a peer-to-peer network monitored by an army of volunteer miners that run specialized software. Every 10 minutes, all the miners in the network race to solve a series of complex cryptographic math problems. The computers that win are awarded a slice of 12.
Over time, the puzzles have gotten harder, leading to a kind of computing-power arms race. Back when Bitcoin first launched, it was possible to mine coins using an everyday computer. These days, you’ll need specialized hardware significantly more powerful than the Butterfly Labs miner WIRED had. WIRED’s miner essentially won the Bitcoin math lottery a couple of times, allowing it to generate a little over 13 coins into the network. Then, the staff had to figure out what to do with them. We had a very long conversation, over several weeks, about what to do with the money,” says Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED who has been at the magazine since 2006. Some staff members argued the Bitcoin should be donated, or set aside for a charitable purpose in the future.
I said we had to dump it and donate the money to charity soonest or we wouldn’t be able to cover Bitcoin,” says Adam Rogers, a deputy editor at WIRED. We had to disclose it in every story. Eventually, it was decided that the private key, which unlocks the Bitcoin wallet and allows the funds to be spent, should be destroyed. We talked about donating it to a journalism institution, or setting it aside as a scholarship. But we decided that if we gained any benefit from it at all, it would color our future coverage of bitcoin,” says Calore. So we just destroyed the key, knowing full well that it could eventually be worth six or seven figures. Together, the combination of codes lets you trade Bitcoin without an intermediary like a bank.
You can look up WIRED’s public key to send us money, and then in theory, we could use our private key to access those funds—had we not destroyed it. No additional copies of the private key exist, at least according to the people who were there. I didn’t make a copy of the paper, or commit the 64 characters on it to memory,” says Antonowicz, the technologist who set up the miner. The good news is that if someone did move the coins, the transaction would be public, allowing WIRED to see where they traveled to. In theory, we might be able to recover the Bitcoin wallet from the hard drive where it was stored, but even that wouldn’t be much help.
There might have been a way to forensically recover the wallet—with the encrypted key—from my hard drive, but I shredded that particular drive years ago,” says Antonowicz. Plus, even if the wallet was resurrected, it’s encrypted. Breaking that protection via brute force would take an unimaginable amount of time. There are three times more possible combinations than there are atoms in the observable universe, by Antonowicz’s count. Originally I was going to say that the closest metaphor I have is that we dropped a car key somewhere in the Atlantic, but I think it’s closer for me to say we dropped the key somewhere between here and the Alpha Centauri,” says Antonowicz.
Recovering our bitcoins is essentially like trying to recover a photo album on a lost computer. Except not only did you get rid of the hard drive, you also protected the album in an encrypted folder with a 64-digit passcode that you threw away. Still, we wanted to make sure there was absolutely no way to get the bitcoins back. WIRED’s editor-in-chief, Nicholas Thompson, suggested that if we were able to recover the funds, they might go toward hiring a full-time cryptocurrency reporter. I reached out to the founder of Butterfly Labs, who didn’t respond.
If you lost your private keys I think it’s game over,” he says. I also looked into a service that tries to crack cryptocurrency wallets via sheer brute force. But their services would be no help, since we don’t have access to the hard drive itself. It looks like WIRED really did lose the money forever. The good news is we’re far from alone.
79 million, or between 17 and 23 percent of all bitcoins have been lost. That includes wallets believed to belong to Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious founder of Bitcoin who hasn’t touched his estimated 1 million coins since 2011. Michael Gronager, the CEO and co-founder of Chainalysis. He argues that’s because there’s more awareness of Bitcoin’s enduring value, even if the price wildly fluctuates. He also says that even if Satoshi were to reemerge, his activity wouldn’t significantly impact the market because he wouldn’t likely spend a large sum of Bitcoin at once. There are several ways you can lose Bitcoin. Like WIRED, you can simply lose track of your private key or your hard drive.