There are eight thousand bitcoins in the landfill

James Howells is a virtual millionaire. Meaning that it theoretically contains about eight thousand bitcoins, each of which is currently worth more than 44 thousand euros for a total of about 350 million euros. Except that the code you need to access your bitcoins is inside a hard drive, a computer hard drive, somewhere in a landfill in Newport, Wales.

The code in the hard drive at the landfill occupies a meager 32 kilobytes of space: it is a kind of password, which is more suitable a “personal key” of 64 characters, made up of numbers and letters. Without the key, Howells can’t take possession of his bitcoins, so he can’t think of cashing in at least part of his fortune. As he said recently New Yorkeris a story that began years ago, that revolves around a lemonade spill on a computer and continues with a classic moment in which one person says to another: “But by chance did you throw that thing away?”.

Before losing it, Howells created bitcoins through a process known as “mining”, or extraction, by which the Bitcoin system asks the computer to contribute to solving cryptographic problems underlying the platform’s work, and in return offers a reward in bitcoins. . For several years, it took a lot of time, powerful computers and a lot of energy to do this. Years ago, in the early days of bitcoin, it was a lot simpler.

Howells began mining bitcoin in 2009, shortly after it was conceived by Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym used by a person (or group of people) about whom not much reliable information has been discovered. Howells, now 36, spent a lot of time on the internet as a teenager, even hitting the then very specialized forums to discuss this new system called Bitcoin. The New Yorker He describes Howells as “the perfect messenger of that technical utopia,” explaining that he was quickly fascinated by it being something “unfamiliar and boundless.” The bitcoin system reminded him of the Napster system, used to download music illegally, and the seti@home system, a system that searches for extraterrestrial life forms with the help of multiple computers.

Intrigued, Howells downloaded it to his Dell XPS N1710 laptop and then used it mostly for video games, the free bitcoin mining software: the software did it himself, at night, and according to Howells the first time he tried in addition to being there four computers were connected other only. He said he decided not to try.Act money “but for”to change Money”, “for fun and experience”.

The occasional night drawing lasted for two months. It was an action that overheated the computer, causing a noise that annoyed Havina, his partner. Howells ended up leaving the business: “It wasn’t worth arguing with him,” he recalls. “At the time, bitcoin had no value and there was no reason to believe it would have any value at all.”

Once the extraction was suspended, the 64-character alphanumeric key, indispensable for accessing the mined bitcoins, remained in the computer. Now, thanks to the many cryptocurrency brokerage applications, managing cryptocurrencies has become easier and faster. Then being able to physically consult the switch was essential. For Howells it was and remains the only tool for opening a virtual vault in which, in a few weeks, thousands of bitcoins have accumulated. There is no virtual equivalent to a blowtorch or who knows what other tool to access it.

Howells continued to use this laptop for other tasks until, a few months later, he accidentally spilled some lemonade he wanted to drink on the keyboard. So he bought an iMac and transferred some files and information on the old device to it. However, for those who use bitcoins, no: he said he thought about it, but at the time there was no Apple hardware version of the software he used and so he abandoned it. However, he kept the hard drive in a desk drawer.

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Years passed, Howells worked as a systems engineer, and he and the three children of Havina grew up. In August 2013 – when the value of bitcoin was fluctuating around €100 – he set out to fix things in his Newport home. Among many other junk, he found two hard drives in his hands: one he knew was empty and the other was an old Dell, which he put in a discarded bag.

In the evening, before bed and after arranging a bag to be taken to the landfill, Howells asked Havina to go and throw it away the next morning. But she said no. Later, right before bed, Howells thought he’d go there himself and, as a precaution, would take the hard drive out of the bag before doing so: “I’m an engineer, I’d never throw the hard drive in the trash. It really is a bad idea. But he woke up in the morning and knew that Havina I finally went to throw the bag, and apparently did not remove the hard drive.Angry and sleepy, Howells fell back to sleep.

Understanding the error, and as the value of bitcoins increased, Howells considered going straight to the landfill, but did not do so because “at the time it was not easy to explain what bitcoins were.” Towards the end of 2013, as the value of one bitcoin was approaching a thousand euros, he realized that this little bug was “getting bigger and bigger” and for the first time spoke about it to Havina.

It is said that Probably There was a few million dollars in it somewhere that encouraged him to go to the landfill and see what he could do. Howells went and saw, as per the novel New Yorker, something like “a dozen or so football fields waste”. However, he learned that things in landfills are not disposed of at random, but by a certain standard and that it will be possible to limit searches to one area.

Before any attempt could be made, permission from the city administration was required. that did not answer. Howells told some newspapers about it in the hope of increasing interest in his case, and it did, in part. But the city of Newport is still not interested in his case.

In the meantime, Howells asked about understanding whether there are ways to access his bitcoins without a private key (no) and if it is possible, even to find his hard drive months later, there are hopes of accessing the key: Certainty does Yes, but hopes. According to Ontrack, an American data recovery company that happened to have teamed up with NASA, assuming the hard drive was still full, the chances of recovering the data inside were between 80 and 90 percent.

Meanwhile, more years passed: more waste piled up in landfills and Howells’ coins continued to accumulate value. In the summer of 2017, bitcoin was worth two thousand euros, and at the end of that year its value exceeded ten thousand euros. Then it landed, but not less than two thousand euros. Also in 2017, the City of Newport Howells reported that based on the information available, there is no viable way to recover his hard drive.

Howells, who is worth eight thousand unrealizable coins over $100 million, met some potential investors willing to fund his research for large percentages (we’re talking about two-thirds of the total) on what was eventually recovered. Over time, he became more and more convinced of the feasibility of the thing: “Probably they move more material in a season gold rush how much should i move New Yorker Referring to a television program that follows mining companies. Meanwhile, the former head of the landfill, after his retirement, also began to cooperate with him.

At the beginning of 2021, while the value of his bitcoins was approaching 300 million euros, he gave the city of Newport 25 percent of what was found (it is not clear whether it was 25 percent of the total or just his share, minus that owed to funders of any research). Newport refused, and in May a municipal garbage clerk told him in a meeting on Zoom that the city government was still not interested.

It is possible that the administration does not want and cannot, for technical and environmental reasons, go and move tons and tons of waste just to address the negligence of one of its citizens. Howells hinted instead that someone might not want to find out that the waste is poorly managed, and that there may be things in the landfill that shouldn’t be there.

DT Max, author of an article New YorkerHe went to Wales to visit Howells in October, when the value of his bitcoins peaked, reaching nearly half a billion euros. Howells explained that the area where he thinks he can find his hard drive is a square with an area of ​​250 meters on each side, and a depth of about 15 meters, which is a total of 40,000 tons of waste. “It doesn’t seem impossible to me, does it?” he added. According to his calculations, it will serve the work of 25 people, for less than a year. All with money from lenders whose identity you don’t know.

The plan is to move the waste from the area in question and pass it on a conveyor belt to an “X-ray machine with special software” which should be used to identify anything that could be a hard disk. The waste is then returned to the landfill or otherwise disposed of, at the expense of the project funders.

Max writes that he saw evidence that Howells’ computer has mined about eight thousand bitcoins and added that despite everything, Howells is still interested in cryptocurrency: he bought some for his father and a few years ago tried to mine others. Ten computers dedicated to it. But times have changed and more space and much more investment has been needed to extract. Note that, he wrote New Yorker, “Electricity costs outnumber profits.”

Howells said he separated from Havina several years ago, who now lives with her three children. Max asked him if he thought the breakup had something to do with the hard drive she had physically disposed of. He replied, “The truth is that in public and in my normal life I try not to blame her, but I did it in my subconscious.” She said she believed that without bitcoin he would still be with her, and that if the hard drive never ended up in a landfill, they would still be “happy and comfortable on a yacht” together. Havina, who confirmed the highlights of Howells’ story to Max, said she did not believe their breakup was over bitcoin.

Despite everything, Howells also says he is convinced that without a personal key he cannot access his bitcoins. Because he believes in the architecture of the Bitcoin system. “If someone came and told me there was a way to get my bitcoins back even without a key, I would say ‘No thanks.’ Because if they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone else, and at this point the government can do it too.” .

According to Chainalysis, a company that specializes in collecting data on cryptocurrency, from 2008 to 2020, about half a million bitcoins, or about a fifth of the total, were lost, or at least have been holding for years. Also among them is Nakamoto, who disappeared in 2011 and whose bitcoins are worth billions still exist.

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