Croxon: QuadrigaCX case highlights blockchain's biggest strength and weakness
The death of a crypto executive trapped $190 million on a Canadian exchange. Or did it?
Ever since Quadriga CX revealed last month that founder Gerald Cotten, who died in India in December, was the only person able to access the exchange’s digital ledgers, scores of blockchain analysts, research companies and amateur sleuths have been arguing over whether some of the money has been moving between accounts since he died and even if the coins existed at all.
Cotten’s widow set off the firestorm by seeking protection from creditors for the Vancouver-based company, saying that her late husband was “very conscious about security” and she didn’t know the password or recovery key of his encrypted laptop nor could she find anything written down despite repeated searches.
Without the key to the digital accounts, it is extremely difficult to unlock the ledger and move the more than US$144 million in coins Quadriga CX had stored on its exchange. While proponents of digital currencies argue that the incorruptible nature of the blockchain is its primary feature, investors in the likes of Bitcoin and Ether have frequently lost their digital codes, locking themselves out of their accounts with little recourse.
The argument that that’s what happened with Quadriga didn’t pass the smell test for many in the industry who are adept at scouring the anonymous ledgers that underpin the decentralized networks for evidence of where digital coins may be stored.
“The Quadriga story doesn’t make sense,” Emin Gün Sirer, a professor at Cornell University and co-director of the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies and Contracts, wrote in an email Wednesday. “The one amazing thing about blockchains is that anyone can audit, in essence, any company.”
A judge is scheduled to deal with a motion to appoint lawyers who’ll represent Quadriga account holders at a hearing on Feb. 14 in Halifax Supreme Court, according to a court filing Wednesday. The move comes after some holders asked the courts to have Bennett Jones LLP and McInnes Cooper represent them during the CCAA proceedings.
Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s widow, said her husband moved most of the digital assets to cold storage, and experts she brought in to try to hack into his other computers and mobile phone met with only “limited success.” Attempts to circumvent an encrypted USB key have been foiled, she said in the court filing.
“If the funds are frozen and the cold wallet is inaccessible, it should be possible for the exchange to provide the cold wallet addresses so their claims can be verified with the help of the blockchain,” Sirer said.
Analysis firms such as Elementus say that by examining the blockchain patterns, they can guess which particular wallets holding coins belong to. The researcher says it couldn’t find any cold wallets holding Ether, one of the cryptocurrencies that’s missing. Instead, Quadriga was moving Ether to larger exchanges through mid-January, Elementus said.
At the same time, the patterns could mean that the exchange had set up automatic transfers to larger exchanges when its wallet balances reached a certain amount, or, alternatively, that “there’s some fishy business going on,” Elementus founder Max Galka said.
The virtually unregulated world of digital currencies has been a breeding ground for hacks and thefts since the Bitcoin was invented more than a decade ago. There were at least five major attacks last year, alone, while Japan, home to some of the world’s most active digital-asset exchanges, has also hosted two of the biggest known crypto hacks: the Mt. Gox debacle of 2014 and the theft of nearly US$500 million in digital tokens from Coincheck Inc. last January.
Jesse Powell, head of exchange Kraken, said it has some Quadriga balances. Of about 230,000 Ether coins that Quadriga is supposed to have had, only about 1,000 coins remain in its own wallets, Galka said.
“Not to be transparent” about where the money is exactly on a blockchain “is unusual,” said Christine Duhaime, a Canadian lawyer specializing in anti-money laundering.
Cotten died of complications due to Crohn’s disease in Jaipur, India, according to Robertson’s affidavit and a statement of death from J.A. Snow Funeral Home in Halifax. Richard Niedermayer, a lawyer with Stewart McKelvey in Halifax who represented Robertson, declined to comment Wednesday.
Some 115,000 users had deposits at the exchange when it stopped working, according to Robertson’s affidavit, filed on Jan. 31.