Buzzword Bingo Bitcoin Burial Burrowing Blueprint Balked At By Bureaucracy

Many of you will at some time have heard the unfortunate tale of [James Howells], a Welsh IT worker who threw away a hard drive containing 8,000 Bitcoin back in 2013. Over the years he’s hatched various schemes to persuade his local council to let him dig up the landfill where it’s reputed to be buried, and every time he’s been rebuffed. Despite the fall in the price of cryptocurrencies he’s back with another. With the added spice of AI and robot dogs alongside the cryptocurrency angle, it reads like a buzzword bingo card and adds a whole new meaning to “Bitcoin mining”. Seemingly despite generous offers the local council are still not keen on letting him dig for the drive.

We can’t help feeling sorry for the guy — after all, in the early days of cryptocurrency the coins were a worthless curiosity so it’s not impossible there are readers with similar stories. But we’re curious how well the drive will have survived its 9-year interment even if the AI robot arm and robot dog security would ensure its recovery. With that much cash at stake the best in the data recovery business will no doubt be unleashed on whatever remains they might recover, but in the unfriendly environment of a festering landfill we’d be curious as to whether chemical action might have corroded the platters to the point at which nothing might remain. Wales has a high rainfall unlike the American southwest, so we doubt it would survive as well as an Atari cartridge.

Meanwhile, tell us your cryptocurrency might-have-beens in the comments.

Landfill Site sign by Geographer, CC BY-SA 2.0.

46 thoughts on “Buzzword Bingo Bitcoin Burial Burrowing Blueprint Balked At By Bureaucracy

  1. How would you trust a data recovery firm with over a million or two bucks worth though? You go “This drive should have cryptocurrency on it” and they go “nah sorry pal, it’s toasted extra crispy, unrecoverable.” and you go “Oh well, que se ra se ra.” but wonder why one of the techs or the boss is suddenly driving a Veyron. Even the crappy single dude with a fancy interface card outfits CLAIM they’re trusted by blue chips and multinationals, but how can you be real sure, on the day, that some tech don’t beef up his retirement fund? There is multiple levels where there could be human failure, tech, supervisors, or upper management, or even secret company policy.

    1. To be fair, to get at those bitcoins, the data recovery co would need to do a transaction that is public on the blockchain… I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that in those 9 years, the guy would have at least managed to figure out his wallet address, so a transfer from there would be immediately visible and the jig would be up.

      1. Yes, the victim would likely know, but there doesn’t seem there would be many good ways to prove, legally that they were yours in the first place. Be like any random person trying to claim an unclaimed lotto prize of multiple millions, “I lost the ticket but it’s mine”… and in a genuine case of that, that guy would be able to say “I bought the ticket on a Friday night between 5 and 6, on the way home from work like I always do, at the store I always go to, and because that info is not public the lotto org could validate his claim… nothing like that for crypto really.. unless you’ve got exchange records where you bought them for cash and transferred them to address… but that’s unlikely to be the case for “old whale” crypto.

      1. Yes I would imagine they frequently come across NDA, corporate secret, inside info, blackmail worthy stuff, but most of that probably requires too much exposure/risk to make more than a couple hundred thousand a pop off, which is not exactly retire to Bali money unless you do it over and over. Which of course probably trashes the business sooner rather than later by reputation even if the legal guns can’t be brought to bear. So yeah, no doubt they could grind millions, but the one big score thing, which you don’t have to do something like make a blackmail call that could be recorded for, create much external activity that you have no control over the persistance of data for, that’s gotta be a supersize temptation. While I accept that people are basically honest, I don’t statistically expect a sample of 10 people to contain 10 scrupulously honest individuals.

    2. You’d use one that has compliance certifications for handling sensitive data, that’s how. And that costs actual currency.

      My only interaction with those places was the first company that offered those services (Ontrack) for a failed laptop drive that had HIPAA- grade data on it; they did a fantastic job and only had a single file that they could not recover, and it was for the OS which I had already re-built on a spare drive. It was not cheap- nearly three thousand US pesos, and that was back in 2005.

      1. I keep looking at the industry, Ontrack seems to be too big now, what I got from their speil last time is “We are now a huge corporate morass that could easily lose your materials in our copious internal beurocracy and red tape, not only that, you won’t even know where we sent it, maybe we farmed it out to China, haha, you’ll never know.”

        I’ve got this strange and stupid problem of.. data that could be worth spending a couple of thousand or so to me (sometimes I’m less sure, sometimes more sure) personal data. Then… an unknown and unknowable amount of not personal data, that is non-disclosable, but may be worth money to criminal elements. Got a retired computer through relative from an engineering office, used it and HDD died. Short version, automotive part(s) for vehicle that has enthusiasts and large aftermarket, may be original specs, metallurgy processes for one or more parts on there that allow exact replicas rather than cheap copies. OEM still able to supply these. (i.e. the “right” people have these files elsewhere). May or may not have been wiped well enough, if I was thinking about this exact sitch then, I’d had DBANed the disk as soon as I got it. Also used in a building that took customer credit card deposits on warranty exchanges. So potential for some of that data being on there too. All in all, no clue on my liability or my relatives for any of that stuff, and actual value to card scammers and knockoff part makers. Just gives me the feeling that I don’t wanna let it out of my sight, and really I ought to smash it with a hammer… but… there’s that important to me stuff on there still… aaargh. How it got to be the single known copy of my data is a long tale of email providers going tits up, cats pissing on CD-Rs and other strange events.

  2. Somewhere on a floppy in my parent’s garage there is a wallet with around I don’t know how much Bitcoin mined on a Pentium 90. But even if I could identify the disk, and by some miracle the file was still in tact, I’d have no idea what the password is. I’ve mostly resigned myself to the loss, but still sometimes dream what might have been…

    1. Well, you would still need to find a sucker to offload them to, because that’s how Bitcoin works; and right now the only people buying Bitcoin are deluded small investors and other vulnerable people, so it’s probably for the best.

      1. Hey, a buyer is a buyer. If I had even 1 BTC, I’d be more than happy to let it go at the current $23K. There are plenty of folks out there right now buying up whatever is available.

        1. That’s about 5 times more powerful than “early days” CPU miners, and if DP had been provided with a private pre-alpha invitation to a premine blockchain that just had Satoshi and Hal Finney each running a single modern CPU on it (Modern for then being Conroe class) and only those three participants, never mind that all early CPU reference implementations needed various versions of SSE, then a Pentium 90 would have had less than 1% chance of getting a block.

          1. Gah, maybe I was right the first time, got SHA256, scrypt, and a few others all scrambled in my head. Anyhoooo, elder days of bitcoin you’d get a couple or three megahash per core, on core class or phenom CPUs. Pentium 90, best estimate, downhill, wind behind it, 0.03 Mhash. Bit like nailing jello to the wall as the miner software got more efficient through the first three years so what things were quoted as doing in 2012, might not be what they were doing in 2009.

            But anyhoo, the FPGA example shows the efficiency of custom logic, even at FPGA speed vs the general purpose CPU or GPU even that needs 10x the Mhz and power to do the same thing… provided that is a very simple, definable and repetetive thing.

    2. “Somewhere on a floppy in my parent’s garage there is a wallet with around I don’t know how much Bitcoin mined on a Pentium 90”

      Is this a writing prompt? You’re mixing up your eras.

      1. Nah, was def a P90, probably around 5 years old at the time (poor uni student), but as noted by others the math doesn’t add up to much. The dead floppy is probably worth more than the wallet on it.

          1. Sorry everyone, I was totally wrong.

            I got my P90 with an external 28.8k modem (1994 or later). I ditched that modem when 56k modems were widely available (they first came out in 1996) so we are talking somewhere around 1995 when I got the computer. At least a decade before bitcoin started (probably 13 or 14 years before). So there is no way I was still using the P90. I was already working in 2009 and likely used either a Pentium Dual Core or Core 2 Duo desktop for bitcoin.

            So yeah, what I said is completely unbelievable – at least a decade off the mark, and I should have checked my facts before doubling down on my story.

  3. I think most people in IT have a similar story of a least a few bitcoins… Most i’ve talked to has that “Ooh, i mined a couple back in the day, but they were only worth a dollar or 2, so i just forgot about it”, and the machine with the wallet we’re then replaced before they got worth so much to be interesting.

    I mined about 0.6 bitcoins when they were worth about 10 dollars each, but never sold them, and the wallet is long lost. A colleague mined about 15 in the very early days, but gave away the harddrive with the wallet to a friend that doesn’t know where it went (And the wallet was most likely overwritten anyway), but most likely was thrown out, but he spent a weekend going through his attic searching for it.

  4. I would not be at all surprised if the disk internals remain entirely intact, though it probably needs a new control board, and you’d definately want to crack it open in a clean room. Still recovery could well be quite easy. Assuming you can actually find the right damn drive – I expect there are enough HDD in landfill for a depressingly high number of ‘oooh is this it’ moments…

    Surely the way to get the council onboard is to just go down the route of recycling the landfill – so many precious minerals in there, and probably in concentrations that can be considered an ore worth mining. So as long as its not a tiny landfill to be processed in its entirety in a year or two building the recycling facilities might even turn you a bigger profit than the data on the drive.

    1. IMO there’s a lot of low percent chances it could have taken obliterative damage before it was really buried, from the compactor in the garbage truck catching it against the wall, to having something heavy impact on it, imagine engine block from a couple of meters high, to meeting the blade or tracks of a bulldozer raking out the fill. Add those all up and you’re at probably a 20-30% chance it’s killed before full burial. Now you can start worrying about what happened if an out of date case of coca cola got dropped on or nearby it and the effects of a 5+ year soak in phosphoric or organic acids. Guaranteed there’s at least water to contend with.. how big a deal that is, is how much non-destructive deformation or damage it took before meeting it, and whether it got stuck in a small sinkhole at the bottom of 50ft of water pressure that had enough suspended gritlike stuff to scour it to death. “Merely” having drinkable water trickle over it a few years might have given it a limescale coating, and most of the stuff that gets that off also removes rust… which isn’t exactly what the platter coating is made of, but same ballpark. So yah… another 20-30% chance of killing it there.

      All in all quite a bit different than a “buried it in a shallow hole in the back yard” kind of proposition, that you might imagine was fairly survivable.

      The false positives are gonna be hell also, even if make and model known if it was a popular one. Labels are not guaranteed to be intact and legible, so basically every consumer drive a manufacturer made in a few year span is gonna look the same, until it’s very cleaned up, and the numbers on the PCB are run against references. Even careful whittling down is maybe gonna leave you with a few dozen, equally unreadable candidates, and it might take $10,000 worth of recovery services on each to eliminate them. So now maybe you’re into the recovery service for $500,000 and they’re starting to worry if the bill is actually gonna be paid. Backers are probably gonna be questioning how sure you can actually be it made it to the landfill. Garbage truck guy could have gone “woo, free hard drive”, taken it home, formatted it, installed windows, ran it to death, sold it on eBay, and it eventually got melted for scrap in Germany or something.

      Anyway, so far away from being a dead cert, I think giving it 50:50 is generous, so responsible authorities are probably looking at it like “50% chance we’ll have the cash to make everything right again” errr, no then.

      1. Maybe you are correct and it would get crushed in some way, but then HDD especially the old ones the frames are built like tanks – I think it more likely that its tough enough to keep that precious metal disk inside entirely safe with the outer casing being at least as tough as anything likely to hit it, while being tiny enough in the scheme of things to slip, slide and bounce through any gap to get away. Certainly lots of low percent chances but if they are LOW fractions of a single percent those odds are pretty good on it reaching a nice cosy spot meters deep in rubbish intact.

        The water damage limescale type stuff is possible – but unlikely as you don’t put landfill sites in places that tend to get wet, as the last thing you want is all the more nasty stuff building up a lake of pure evil and escaping into the ground/river water. So really it aught to at most have gotten wet when it rained over the site.

        I agree the odds of recovering it are not great, 50:50 is probably about right on the generous side for my gut feeling too – as first you have to actually have it reach the landfill site you think it is in – so many ways that can not happen, then you have to find and identify it which in so much junk is perhaps the hardest part, and then its got to still be readable.

        So many ways it can fail – which is why I suggested selling it as a recycling plant, with the huge volumes of highly refined materials that make it to landfill that is actually quite likely to be a grant worthy and profitable business if you can get the right team onboard to make it happen. Probably remains so even after you process the entire landfill – if you get the methods refined fresh waste will come your way, or the operation will move to the next giant hole full of rubbish… That then makes finding the HDD more of a rather substantial bonus if it happens, assuming at that point the this brand of crypto bollocks is still worth anything…

  5. He doesn’t own anything.
    The landfill operator now own the physical waste.
    Try taking items from a tip in the UK and if you dont heed the warnings they can prosecute you for theft.
    It’s a bone of contention in so far as “recycling” isn’t really what we do here.

    If he doesn’t own the drive any more, it opens up that can of worms on digital items and ownership.
    If they own the hard drive do they own the contents therefore they own the bitcoin if it’s there?
    Or if they would have to hack any encryption to get to the coin it becomes a crime under CMA.

    1. It could actually be crown property now, never know… If per se land rights were divided between surface and subsurface, and a mining company dug a hole, extracting minerals with those rights, then council purchased only surface rights and topped it back up to the “surface” again, subsurface rights might have reverted. So, could go to relevant other authority and buy subsurface rights and council would have to go fiddle…. though procedures would have to be done, dot the ts and cross the eyes while holding your nose kinda deally to jump through all the hoops of the gauntlet of dead whale kicking into the breach (I learned idiom off Zap Brannigan) i.e. environmental impact statements filed etc etc.

  6. Do you really throw hard-drives in landfill in the UK? In most civilized parts of the world all electronics must be recycled, throwing anything in the landfill would be illegal.

    1. Certainly shouldn’t..

      There is also intentionally or unintentionally, and the ignorant/lazy part too – we do have e-waste recycling at the ‘recycling centre’ but shit happens and lots of folks are likely too lazy or ignorant to care, especially 20 odd years ago… E-waste wasn’t from what I can recall a thing ever really mentioned in my childhood, which I suppose rather makes sense as most stuff in the pre 90’s sort of era is expensive and full of mechanical functional parts with minimal electronics, so the slightly older folks didn’t have so much of it, then into the 90’s home computers are still rather less than 3 in every house common and probably lasted 3x longer than most do today, by the time you get to 2010’s real electronic tech is being thrown away in big volumes and its getting more awareness, all those ‘dead’ MP3 player and early mobile phones… Still far from as high up the list as it really should be in public awareness I’d suggest at this point.

      Not sure of the legality of putting such stuff in your household waste collection, I’d hope its not legal, but really it makes no difference in practice. Garbage truck picks up your bin and dumps it in with all the other shit from everyone in a pretty wide radius so actually getting caught in a way anything can be done about it…

    2. I guess we aren’t civilized. All junk goes to the landfill. If you want to recycle, that’s up to you. Personally, I tear down my drives, retrieve the platters and pull the strong magnets. Into the garbage the rest goes.

      And as bitcoin, …. what a waste of good energy.

      1. We have an bitcoin operation here. It uses enough energy to supply a small city. Just sitting there doing no, notta, useful work, Our utility has seen load peaks breaking records. Not from climate, but from bitcoin,,,,, Cut it out and we’d be back to almost normal loads. People yap about clean energy and reducing energy usage with their lips, yet power up these operations that just turns electricity into heat,,, Well here is one area that could go away and we’d all be better for it. It is interesting we ‘see’ it. But the bit coiners continue to sucker people in.

      1. I know as early as the 80s areas in the Midlands had huge electro magnet and air jet density sorters which acted on massive conveyor belt of garbage to pull out metals and other recyclables. But that was where population density demanded it. Outlying regions may have stayed a little more stone age (Sticking it in a hole in the ground is often how we know about ancient cultures diet and habits, we find “middens”)

    3. I suspect it’s just as illegal here but no-one’s inspecting the contents of your bin for banned substances unless it’s very obvious.

      We have home recycling bins, and the local tip (Household Waste Recycling Centre / HWRC) has segregated bins for metal, wood, etc. as well as specifics like old fridges and tins of paint for specific safe disposal.

  7. “we cannot allow you to dig on this landfill for any reason” said the spokesman, wearing an armani supplied uniform before leaving in his gold plated refuse truck with spinning diamond hubcaps…

  8. Like many, many folks, I mined a few blocks back in the day but never sold them because people weren’t buying due to the low price. Then, the hard drive failed and ended up being used for target practice (the glass platters practically exploded when hit.

    I wish I delivered pizza a decade ago.

    1. Funnily enough that’s the complaint a lot of the vintage hardware guys have now… “Why do people want $100 for pentium motherboards now, just a decade or so back they were so cheap we used them for target practice”… ummm maybe because there’s very few left after you used them all for target practice, heh.

  9. Even in 2013, a bitcoin was worth a few dollars. So this guy’s 8000 bitcoins would have been worth 5 figures back then. So if this guy is to be believed, even at the time he threw away the hard drive, it had data worth thousands on it. Maybe the article got the year wrong? Anyway, something in this story doesn’t add up.

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