When Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Gabriel Bewley helped establish the virtual-currency initiative for the agency in 2015, the learning curve was steep. “I grew up with Atari 2600s, VIC-20s, Commodore 64s,” says Bewley, age 49. “The challenge that most law enforcement have is that many of their top-echelon people are my age or older.” Since then, Bewley has managed to get up to speed on how cryptocurrencies are used in federal narcotics crimes, though he says there are constantly new things to learn.
Bewley recently spoke with BREAKER about why crypto-related cases are so difficult to crack, what we can expect to see from tech-savvy drug traffickers in the future, and why the DEA is not frustrated by the ever-evolving techniques of crypto-criminals.
How did you become a DEA agent?
Initially I was a local police officer with the city of Baltimore, and then I became a DEA agent in 1999. Especially in the beginning, I did a lot of undercover work—I purchased drugs from narcotics traffickers, and I focused on relationships and blending in. So it’s largely different from what I’m doing now, being one of the oversight people for the virtual-currency initiative for DEA. We make policy, we provide training, we meet with blockchain technology companies, we meet with [crypto] exchanges, we meet with peer-to-peer sites.
When did you start dealing with crimes involving cryptocurrency?
In 2015, I moved to headquarters, in Northern Virginia. DEA had done several virtual-currency cases, but there was no central authority for them.
How much did you know about cryptocurrency before you took that position?
I knew a little bit—just a little bit about bitcoin.
And how did you get up to speed?
Reading everything on the internet, reading magazines probably like yours. Figuring out different software technologies, meeting with tech companies, meeting with exchanges and peer-to-peer sites, identifying individuals in this space and just sitting down and talking with them. Initially it was very overwhelming.
What percentage of the crimes that the DEA is investigating are linked to cryptocurrency?
Less than 10 percent. But we’re seeing that the younger generation is definitely gravitating towards this, and more and more people are going to be utilizing blockchain technology, utilizing cryptocurrency. So we as DEA believe this is going to continue to grow.
Can you take me through a typical day on the job?
There’s no typical day. My partner and I travel quite a bit. We just got back from Syracuse; next week we’re going to Phoenix. We’re usually training, we’re attending symposiums, we’re meeting with other investigators to assist them in any way they might need us. A lot of my day and my partner’s day deals with talking on the phone to investigators, brainstorming different ideas about investigations. We are on the phones constantly with technology companies, trying to figure out how we need to maneuver ourselves in this space.
How helpful have cryptocurrency companies been to the DEA?
We have some are that very welcoming and friendly and are willing to work with us, and we have other tech companies that respectfully decline to even respond to us.
How do crimes involving cryptocurrency differ from the type the DEA ordinarily tackles?
The crimes with cryptocurrency often go international very quickly. When you’re moving cryptocurrency or dealing with a darknet market, it’s borderless. A lot of times with a regular investigation for DEA, it may start centrally and move out to different countries at some point, but [crypto-related cases] can move out very quickly to people in the Netherlands and Thailand and Bucharest, wherever it might be.
How much harder has the rise of cryptocurrency, which can provide relative anonymity, made the DEA’s job?
It’s made our job very difficult. Because, as you well know, bitcoin involves numbers and letters, and it doesn’t provide an actual name. So providing attribution to those bitcoin addresses is very difficult, and we’re still working on trying to get a harness on that.
Are the privacy coins like Monero really private, or does the DEA have methods of working around that?
They’re pretty private. Monero, Zcash—it can be difficult to try to figure out who the people are behind them. We’re finding it very difficult for all of the cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, to try to attribute people to them.
What trends are you seeing as far as cryptocurrency and crime go?
The big thing is the movement to darknet markets, where vendors are distributing all kinds of drugs—cocaine, heroin, fentanyl. Going with that is all the encryption type stuff, specifically the PGP [Pretty Good Privacy] keys.
Sounds like the criminals have an advantage over law enforcement for now?
I would say that’s correct. I think the big thing for us is just training and trying to keep up with technology.
Last year the DEA helped bring down AlphaBay, which was the largest-ever online dark market. Have other darknet sites learned any lessons from what happened to AlphaBay?
You may want to ask them about that.
What’s the most interesting crypto-related case you can tell me about?
We can’t really discuss cases. One of the trends that we’re seeing is that cryptocurrency is becoming the new way of sending funds to wherever you’d like to without having to use a third party. So we see this space kind of taking over at some point from Western Union or MoneyGram.
The decentralization factor makes your job more difficult, I would assume?
Yeah, absolutely. Because you’re sending [drugs] through the mail or some sort of FedEx or UPS facility, we’re starting to see more individuals distributing large amounts of drugs with little overhead. They don’t have people under them.
Are traditional drug cartels getting into cryptocurrency?
We believe that we’re going to be seeing that.
What other trends do you see in the future in terms of cryptocurrency and crime?
We’re trying to figure out what the cryptocurrency space is going to look in the next year or two years or five years. I think it’s going to look very different. I think it’s going to have something to do potentially with a new cryptocurrency. Maybe the blockchain might be able to help a potential narcotics trafficker organize his distribution side a little bit better.
Seems like cryptocurrency has caused the DEA a big headache. How frustrating is it?
Actually for us, it doesn’t really get frustrating, because we’re always learning. And it’s definitely not only a DEA-centric concern. We work with all of our counterparts—HSI [Homeland Security Investigations], FBI, IRS, U.S. Postal—and we all have some of the same challenges. I would say that that [cryptocurrency] requires DEA to think a little bit harder on how to pursue the bad actors in this area.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy DEA.