Researchers crack 11-year-old password, recover $3 million in bitcoin

By | May 29, 2024
Illustration of a wallet
Flavio Coelho/Getty Images

Two years ago when “Michael,” an owner of cryptocurrency, contacted Joe Grand to help recover access to about $2 million worth of bitcoin he stored in encrypted format on his computer, Grand turned him down.

Michael, who is based in Europe and asked to remain anonymous, stored the cryptocurrency in a password-protected digital wallet. He generated a password using the RoboForm password manager and stored that password in a file encrypted with a tool called TrueCrypt. At some point, that file got corrupted, and Michael lost access to the 20-character password he had generated to secure his 43.6 BTC (worth a total of about 4,000 euros, or $5,300, in 2013). Michael used the RoboForm password manager to generate the password but did not store it in his manager. He worried that someone would hack his computer and obtain the password.

“At [that] time, I was really paranoid with my security,” he laughs.

Grand is a famed hardware hacker who in 2022 helped another crypto wallet owner recover access to $2 million in cryptocurrency he thought he’d lost forever after forgetting the PIN to his Trezor wallet. Since then, dozens of people have contacted Grand to help them recover their treasure. But Grand, known by the hacker handle “Kingpin,” turns down most of them, for various reasons.

Grand is an electrical engineer who began hacking computing hardware at age 10 and in 2008 cohosted the Discovery Channel’s Prototype This show. He now consults with companies that build complex digital systems to help them understand how hardware hackers like him might subvert their systems. He cracked the Trezor wallet in 2022 using complex hardware techniques that forced the USB-style wallet to reveal its password.

But Michael stored his cryptocurrency in a software-based wallet, which meant none of Grand’s hardware skills were relevant this time. He considered brute-forcing Michael’s password—writing a script to automatically guess millions of possible passwords to find the correct one—but determined this wasn’t feasible. He briefly considered that the RoboForm password manager Michael used to generate his password might have a flaw in the way it generated passwords, which would allow him to guess the password more easily. Grand, however, doubted such a flaw existed.

Michael contacted multiple people who specialize in cracking cryptography; they all told him “there’s no chance” of retrieving his money. But last June he approached Grand again, hoping to convince him to help, and this time Grand agreed to give it a try, working with a friend named Bruno in Germany who also hacks digital wallets.