Anonymous vs. Untraceable

All too often, the terms “anonymous” and “untraceable” are interchanged and misused, both by technical writers and amateurs. When Bitcoin initially entered the spotlight in 2011, many people getting familiar with the technology were proudly declaring Bitcoin as being “untraceable,” although what they really meant was “anonymous”. The difference lies in the fact that we cannot tie a name to a specific address, but we can track the origin of each coin all the way back to the very first block.

The stark truth is that public blockchains like Bitcoin are arguably the most traceable ledgers in existence today. The ledger is so traceable that anyone in the world can go to a number of websites known as “blockchain explorers” and see where the coins come from, where the coins are going, and how many coins are controlled by each public address. However, the public addresses are random and give no personally identifiable information, so no one immediately knows who controls each address. In that respect, anonymity is provided by the blockchain network.

By using metadata analysis and combining different sources, Most cryptocurrency transactions can be de-anonymized. The company Chainalysis is a good example of this. Chainalysis analyzes blockchain activity and combines it with other data to build a case for a particular person possibly controlling a particular public key. This information is used to combat crimes like money laundering and to prevent the financing of terrorist activity. Once a Bitcoin has been marked as stolen, it can be traced. Even tumbling services have been proven to be susceptible to these analytical methods.

Some cryptocurrencies are both untraceable and anonymous. The protocols behind these “privacy coins” are designed in such a way that if you tried to look at that blockchain, you would have no idea where coins come from, where coins are going, which address controls each coin, and in some cases what the addresses are in the first place. The privacy-based blockchains make it much harder to determine what activity is occurring on the chain. The algorithms used in these coins are quite complicated and expensive to perform, and some may prove to be broken in the end.