My odyssey to save $ 200 thousand in bitcoins

The author of the material tells how he managed to extract the cryptocurrency from a broken laptop and a wallet with a lost password.

Some other month ago, I could not even think that my October would be like this. And yet here I am, flying to Hong Kong in the hope that I will be able to extract bitcoins worth 200 thousand dollars from a broken laptop.

Four years ago, my friend and journalist Mike (name changed) lived in Hong Kong and decided to invest in Bitcoin. I bought 4 coins, and he kept 40. This investment cost me about $ 2 thousand, and Mike paid $ 15 thousand. At that time, buying Bitcoin was considered an unprecedented speculation, but as the years went on, coins grew in price and Mike’s visionary decision increasingly became all the more justified. I have since moved to Los Angeles, occasionally sending Mike messages about the tremendous growth of our investments.

But something was wrong with the answers that I received from him. They were not filled with the expected enthusiasm. He had 10 times more bitcoins. Didn’t he care? As a result, when the price of 1 coin passed over the mark of 4 thousand dollars this summer, I sent him a message: "Do you still have those bitcoins?" And then, finally, there was a confession: "Maybe already not .. . "

And that's what happened. In 2013, Mike and I quite reasonably worried about the integrity and safety of their investment. At first he kept his bitcoins on LocalBitcoins. Exchangers like this are usually well suited for buying or selling bitcoins, but they should not be kept there permanently. Everyone still remembers perhaps the most notorious scandal around Bitcoin associated with the Mt. Gox, whose actions turned to the loss of 850 thousand bitcoins for its users.

In addition, the exchanges may suddenly close, as happened to many of them in China this year, when the government of the country suddenly decided to outlaw them. Any serious cryptoinvestor will tell you that they are best kept in cold storage (separate hardware, disconnected from the network). So I did with my bitcoins, but Mike did not go so far and chose a software wallet for himself. It was a good decision, but he had yet to discover that this approach did not protect him from careless handling.

Today we have a lot of intuitive and rich wallets in functionality, but in 2013 the choice was not so wide. Mike used the MultiBit wallet popular at that time, which was later discontinued from a large number of bugs and not the desire of the first development team to continue working on it.

Today we can confidently say that MultiBit was written in a quick way. Its interface is not intuitive. And although most users usually need just one wallet, MultiBit, with its flashy big “Create Wallet” button, insist that you create several. And besides, it allows you to add multiple passwords for each wallet, although there was no obvious need for this. Just a few minutes with this program allowed you to deposit several dozen wallets, each of which could be protected by a whole dozen passwords. In general, if briefly, it was very easy to make a mistake while working with this program.

In March 2014, on a particularly wet Hong Kong night, Mike created a new wallet in Multibit, moved his 40 bitcoins there and added a password. Based on some universal wisdom known only to them, the programmers who wrote this program did not add a second field to confirm the password. Excuse me to enter your password correctly and the first time! But Mike immediately realized that he was wrong. He tried the combination that was right in his opinion and was refused. Then again and again, but each time he received the same answer. He was sure that his finger slipped during the first password entry. That is, at some point he pressed another key. But at what point? And which key exactly?

Since Mike came to the bitcoin game seriously and for a long time, he continued methodically selecting passwords for the next week or two. As time went on, the whole year the price of bitcoin ranged between $ 200 and $ 400, and therefore he had no reason to rush. He considered that one day the decision would manifest itself, put his 2007 MacBook with the MultiBit wallet in a safe corner of his office, where he quietly ordered to live long as a result of the failure of the motherboard.

I learned about it from him earlier this year. "You know, I kept it in me for a long time, it's something like a mental block, but I want to admit that it looks like I lost all my bitcoins." And he talked about the current laptop and failure with MultiBit. He talked about all this as if we were in the confessional, but he had committed a certain sin, his conscience was nagging him long ago, and he finally came to ask for forgiveness. Against the background of the rise in Bitcoin prices at that time, its potential losses were already 180 thousand dollars. Mike was seriously going to come to the office of KeepKey, the company that inherited MultiBit, and then ... I don't even know what he wanted to achieve from them. I asked him to wait a bit.

While I was listening to his story, I had a strong feeling that I could help him fix everything, although at that moment I did not have a clear idea of ​​how this could be done. I quite well understood how Bitcoin wallets work, but I wasn’t exactly an expert in this matter. I think I was attracted by the temptation to solve this difficult task. In the end, Bitcoin grew on a cosmic scale, and it was about the real 200 thousand dollars. In general, if short, then it made sense to try.

I knew that accessing the hard disk from the old MacBook was easy. To do this, it was enough to connect to a new computer. The main obstacle was to deal with MultiBit. I studied the old version of unsupported software and found out that there are several ways to restore access to MultiBit wallets. For each wallet, the program generates encrypted backups, and also makes a separate encrypted copy of the private key. In addition, it could be restored immediately with all the wallets. For this, we needed an auxiliary phrase that was invented at the very beginning, but Mike, of course, forgot it.

It quickly became clear that our chances of success were at best 50%: we could decipher either the backup of the wallet or the key. To do both would require a password that Mike needs to remember. I shared my conclusions with him and he offered me a percentage of all the funds that we can recover. And although I could help him remotely, he asked me to come and be at the crucial moment. It was not just a technical error, but also a serious personal experience, and he needed a number of people with whom he could share it.

I arrived in Hong Kong just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. The celebration is based on a beautiful legend, and the fact that the moon on this night is the fullest and brightest of the year. From a practical point of view, for Hong Kong, this means several holiday non-working days.

Therefore, we immediately began with what should have been done first: we found a technician in one of the noisy city’s crowded computer malls, which helped us transfer data from a dead computer before leaving for a well-deserved weekend. Data extraction went smoothly, and soon we were already viewing the Multibit files on my computer. A start was made.

Next, I would like to make a useful digression, and tell you what Bitcoin is. This can be done with the following metaphor. Money began its existence as physical objects. Then they became strongly associated with your personality (for example, the name on your bank account). But cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are virtual objects, which means that they exist only in the digital space, not tied to anyone's identity.

Like a digital dollar bill, bitcoins can be exchanged, stolen or lost. But all the same, it’s just a symbolic representation of the fact that Bitcoin is actually just a cryptographically blocked address in the blockchain. And therefore, actually, there are no bitcoins "on" your computer. In fact, you only have a private key with which you can unlock the location of the bitcoins in the blockchain. And it was this key that we were looking for in the pile of Mike MultiBit folders.

Now, when we got to the backups, it's time to start unlocking. It seems that to protect his bitcoins, Mike created about a dozen different wallets, and apparently the confusing interface of the program played an important role in this process. The good old process of sequential exclusion should have led us to a single wallet, which turned out to be the last destination of the blocked bitcoins before the breakdown. We downloaded the first wallet, entered the same password that Mike came up with many years ago and it worked. It was a good sign. This means that the password that was invented once worked with at least some wallets. Here are just the right among us was not. Unlocked wallet began to synchronize with the blockchain.

Blockchain is often described as a decentralized public registry. From a practical point of view, this means that we are talking about a long list of all transactions ever conducted. It is called decentralized because each transaction is confirmed by the computer solving of the miner of a mathematical problem. Obtaining up-to-date information on the blocks formed over so many years takes time. In our case, about 80 minutes. A full moon was rising over Hong Kong, and we were eating Thai food, waiting for the blockchain to synchronize.

At some point, the account was replenished with 40 bitcoins received on November 20, 2013. Wallet also showed their current value: $ 200 thousand.

It seemed that he was a success, but I knew that it was too early to celebrate victory: these figures reflected information from four years ago. And so it turned out: when the blockchain reached March 20, 2014, the balance dropped to 0, because it was on that day that all bitcoins were sent to another place.

We checked four or five other wallets, each time more than an hour waiting for the synchronization to complete. And time after time we saw how the bitcoin equivalent of 200 thousand dollars appeared on November 20, 2013 and disappeared from the wallet on March 20, 2014. At some point, the whole tragedy of the situation gave way to pessimistic jokes.

At 1 o'clock in the morning we checked another wallet. This time March 20 has passed, but the coins on it have not gone away. After another half hour of agony, the blockchain ceased synchronization and the balance still showed the same amount. We found what we were looking for.

It remained only to send Coins away from this mess in a modern wallet (we chose Exodus, for its simplicity, clarity and security). But sending required one more password. Remember I wrote above that MultiBit allows you to add additional passwords. That's exactly what Mike did that night of 2014. We tried a known password and ... it turned out to be wrong. We tried again and again, carefully searching for each character before pressing. But it was all in vain. 50% chance was not on our side.

Why did MultiBit insist on adding multiple passwords? And why didn’t he even ask for confirmation of the password when he first entered it? But software void is deaf to such questions.

Desperate, Mike wanted to surrender, but I didn’t fly for half a world to make this whole venture in vain. We opened the spreadsheet and began to enter into it various variations of the password, in the hope of overcoming the error with the help of “brute force”. But 50 passwords later, we realized that this was all Sisyphean work. MultiBit allowed using all characters, characters, registers and spaces in passwords, and therefore the number of possible combinations was simply incredibly large. We even turned off the air conditioner in the apartment, trying to recreate the humid atmosphere that pervaded that fateful night, but this did not help us.

We checked all his mail correspondence for those numbers. Found only a messy find in the form of three letters for March 21, sent to himself, and reminiscent of how much he had adjusted with MultiBit, but their content was useless, because it contained irrelevant information, which Mike then considered important.

Since Mike was a journalist by profession, I assumed that he could easily write down the password options on a notebook at the moments when he had good combinations. But as soon as I asked this question, we discovered our correspondence with him in Google chat for 2014, which occurred between us five days after the fiasco. In it, he told me that he became nervous, decided to clean up and threw out all the old notebooks.

Another fruitless series of attempts later, we decided to devote ourselves to a new eternal hobby. Yes, luck did not smile at us that night, but we had a whole life ahead of us. We could go on and on, and the higher the value of Bitcoin would grow, the stronger our motivation would one day find a happy combination of numbers. But even to an optimist like me, this approach seemed like a lovecraft nightmare.

I started thinking about writing a program that could go through all the variations of the password, and Mike increasingly showed signs of detachment, a worthy Zen master. He sat on the couch, pondering over the nature of this loss, while I began to woo the backup files again. And suddenly it hit me: an additional password that Mike created went to the wallet, but it is quite possible that it did not go to the key backup file.

I created a new wallet in MultiBit, loaded the key file into it and unlocked it with the correct password known to us. And while Mike was carrying some complacent nonsense about the fleeting nature of money, hopes, dreams, our lives and the whole of this world, I watched the synchronization of the blockchain. So, the 20th of November sailed by, then as it should have appeared 200 thousand. And after March 20, and the balance remained.

Interesting. I clicked on the Send tab, where we had just spent five wonderful hours trying to break through the head with a password-locked door to the world of modern addresses and wallets. And I found that the Send button was active, "burning" and you could click on it, without any passwords. So, I could try to do it and ...

Oh my god, it worked!

The balance dropped to zero, the transaction was announced to other nodes of the blockchain, and my pulse jumped sharply. This meant that now we could only wait for the confirmation of the transaction, after which we finally had to have complete control over these bitcoins in the new secure wallet.

As a rule, in order for a transaction to be recognized as complete, most wallets or exchanges need only two confirmations, but it is considered truly irreversible only after seven confirmations. It took 15 minutes, and we still did not have any. Then another hour, but the situation did not change.

So we found another reason why MultiBit is considered to be an irreversibly non-working program: the tiny transaction commission was crammed into the program code manually. Confirmation of transactions in the blockchain is made by miners in exchange for a small percentage of the funds transferred, but three years after the release of the wallet, commissions have grown so much that now they already exceed the values ​​in the wallet by several orders of magnitude. That is, the commission of our transaction turned out to be negligible, and therefore it could spill over in the memory (the list of pending transactions) infinitely. Not a single miner would even notice her, let alone confirm.

Hong Kong at night is a very beautiful place, especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Residents spend the holiday at home or go to rest, the streets are empty, but the city still does not look lifeless. He seems to be inactive, waiting for the moment when the usual activity boils again. On this night, the moon was the brightest and fullest of the year. And in its magical light, something very unusual happened.

The next morning I checked the blockchain explorer and was surprised to find that our transaction had already received five confirmations. But how? Mike and I rushed to the cafe to wait for the last two confirmations. While we waited, I quickly googled and found that sometimes, during periods of low activity, there are very few transactions in the memory ... And the Mid-Autumn Festival in China, where most of the Bitcoin miners are located, turned out to be just one of those moments.

As a result, we finally received the long-awaited confirmation. Luck was on our side. The blockchain helped us, and the magical atmosphere of the festive Hong Kong helped with it. The calm and silence of the morning cafe were disturbed for some time by two idiots, rejoicing and screaming “give me five” right in front of the laptop.

In the darkest moments of this night, it seemed absurd to me that the encrypted address in the digital registry meant so much. . .

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