Say FBI arrested a guy who bought some drugs using bitcoin. Then, is it possible for FBI to trace a drug dealer using the arrested guy’s PrivateKey and his transaction histories?

If my understanding of bitcoin algorithm is correct, this is impossible since PublicKey only shows that “there is a user with this public key” and it does not give any more information about a user who owns that PublicKey.

Moreover, transaction that the dealer and the arrested guy made only shows public keys.

Can one trace someone using past trasactions?

  • Most users of BTC have many PrivateKeys and PublicKeys, since good security practice calls for a different address for every single transaction.
    – abelenky
    Jan 15, 2018 at 14:36

2 Answers 2


Knowledge about his addresses and transaction history will be sufficient to discover addresses with which he made deals. His Private key will not help. This is the consequence of public ledger.

The different case is with deterministic wallets. When you know master private key/ mnemonic seed you can check all derived addresses, even the ones you have no previous knowledge.

  • But can one find the actual guy in real world when we only know his “address” (this is a PublicKey) ? That is my question.
    – Rubertos
    Jan 15, 2018 at 11:29
  • @Rubertos if he send the money from this address to the account on market exchange then law enforcement can contact the exchange and with high probability find the person. Jan 15, 2018 at 11:33
  • Yes that would be one case. However, is it possible to find the person directly using bitcoin address? This is my question. What if the dealer did use a deep web market place and did not convert it to real money using cryptocurrecy-exchange market?
    – Rubertos
    Jan 15, 2018 at 11:37
  • @Rubertos the address without any additional data gives you no information. Note however, that all the transactions are known, so law enforcement can contact some person who this dealer made deals with, and going back in transaction history find the person who they want to catch. Because of that, some people say that bitcoin is pseudonymous. Jan 15, 2018 at 11:46
  • Okay thank you. That drug-dealing scenario is just an example. I was curious that how much information an individual can directly extract from PublicKeys. So, unlike one can find out location using IP address, there is no info here.. thank you
    – Rubertos
    Jan 15, 2018 at 11:49

From the drug buyers address the FBI can follow the outbound transaction(s) to see the drug dealers bitcoin address(es). Then analytics can provide the group of other addresses belonging likely to the same drug dealer. Then they follow all outbound addresses of this address group until they find one or more paths to exchanges where the dealer might have cashed out. There they might get id information or if they're fast they might be able to freeze some of the drug dealers bitcoin fortune even if they don't know the id. Tracing technology did big steps in the last years so for a few dollars even private people can get access to databases able to trace bitcoin addresses to exchanges.

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