Covering the technology, people, and culture of the cryptocurrency and blockchain world

Pirates, witches, lava, and bitcoin: Ocean’s 11 meets Iceland 11

What makes a $2 million bitcoin mining heist uniquely Icelandic.

Pirate

This is totally how it went down (via Shutterstock)

It’s a crime so perfect, one can imagine a blockbuster movie about it. 

The camera pans to an otherwise unsexy server farm on the frozen tundra of Iceland’s southwest Reykjanes peninsula, home to about 22,000 people. The area is ridiculously quiet in December—literally not even a mouse would be out of hibernation. Cut to the nearby Blue Lagoon—empty of all tourists after closing. Security cameras are triggered only by the occasional mink, fox, or reindeer crunching around the sparse vegetation.

That is until December when 11 people, including one security guard, were arrested in a complex bitcoin-mining rig heist. Police still have not recovered the $2 million in gear including over 600 servers, 600 graphics cards, over 100 motherboards, and 100 assorted memory disks, according to AP reports. Two remain in custody.

“This is a grand theft on a scale unseen before,” Olafur Helgi Kjartansson, the police commissioner on Reykjanes, said to the AP. “Everything points to this being a highly organized crime.”

It could have been a lot worse. Eyjólfur Magnús Kristinsson, CEO of Advania Data Centers, said that fortunately, the area has been well protected by security cameras and guards.

On the surface this seems like a some computers had just gone missing. But these 11 individuals were part of the greatest heist in the history of Iceland. And although the components could sell separately for millions, they could be worth billions if they get put to use together.

Three of four burglaries took place in December and a fourth took place in January at Iceland’s tech giant Advania. However, authorities did not make the news public earlier in hopes of tracking down the thieves.

Icelandic authorities asked local internet providers, electricians, and storage space unit managers to report any unusual requests for power.

Icelanders don’t have a history of adapting foreign words to their rich language. Thus their word for computer is tölva, which is Icelandic for “number witch” since computers can do wizarly things with number.

The missing computers has put all of Iceland’s police and tech sector on a nationwide number witch hunt.

Utility

While this is all happening in a nation that literally has a Pirate Party in government, the crime points Iceland’s history of trade rather than skullduggery.

“Icelandic vikings were not as common as you would imagine – most of the really famous ones were Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes,” said James McMullen, a Canadian Museologist with an MA in Medieval Icelandic Studies from the University of Iceland “Icelanders tended to be more for domestic feuding rather than extended raiding. They did trade a good bit, and one of the more famous Icelanders was Ólafr pái—Olaf the Peacock—who was exceptionally wealthy.”

“That said, Gunnar Hámundarsson did go a-viking fairly regularly and returned with a load of silver and other goods which he traded with and used to generally enhance his standing.”

If Gunnar used 10th century Iceland as a safe place to store what he pillaged, can his 21st century descendents do the same?

Whoever is in possession of these powerful components does have a problem that goes to the heart of cryptocurrency: Utility. Bitcoin didn’t rise in price until you could actually do something with it, like buy guns and drugs on the internet. These 600 servers—which would more than fill a semi truck—are almost worthless unless you can plug them in.

To understand why this audacious heist could not happen anywhere else and why these hot shot servers might even be worthless in another country, you need to know a bit about Icelandic energy and culture rather than pirating. If you’ve ever read a story about “hygge”—the Danish word that sort of means being warm and cosy, then hang on tight: Icelandic has three words for it—kósý, huggulegt, næs. And it is in part what’s keeping them from finding the servers.

The Perfect Setting

The police are referring to it as the “Big Bitcoin Heist” but in reality no bitcoin have been misplaced just yet. Normally when an amount of Bitcoin is stolen, like the famous Mt Gox hack, it drives the price down as buyers panic. But the Ice Heist has the potential to drive the price up and increase the security of cryptocurrency.

Instead of relying on banks and governments, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin rely on a network of computers to handle transactions. Just about anyone can start one. In return for lending your computing power to the community, you are rewarded with bitcoin. So why not just start one on your home computer and save yourself the trip to Iceland? The gaming graphics cards and digital memory required to actually make any money are such a power suck that they would cost money for most of us to use it just to power the server (which gets very hot) and to keep it in an air conditioned room.

If you painted all of Texas in solar panels to run your bitcoin mining operation, you could still go broke just trying to cool the servers.

Think of Iceland therefore as the Swiss bank of bitcoin mining. It is remote, mostly secure and sitting on an endless source of cheap geothermal energy to power the servers and an equally endless source of natural cold air to cool them down. At the nearby Genesis Mines, open turbines in the ceiling suck cold fresh air from the outside through pillowcase-shaped air filters. Operations like this are also growing in Quebec where mining is drawing so much of the hydroelectric power that the government is discussing whether they should charge miners higher rates.

Air filters

Those aren’t pillowcases. Those are air filters (via YouTube.com/Beme News)

(For more on this I highly recommend this short YouTube video about Iceland and the Genesis Mines from Beme starring V Sauce’ great explainer Jake Roper.)

Power execs estimate that power usage of crypto mines will reach 840 GWh more than all of the homes in Iceland combined.

This means that even though the stolen goods are worth millions on eBay, they’re only really worth billions of dollars in Iceland.

This is starting to look like the perfect crime. If someone had stolen $2 million in cash, the banks would likely have serial numbers to track it. If someone stole $2 million in bitcoin, we could watch it change hands but couldn’t do much about it. Meanwhile if someone had stolen $2 million worth of Lamborghinis, they’d be lucky to get $1 million on the used car market. A $2 million painting would be hard, though not impossible, to unload. But as more companies catch on to moving their mining operations to Iceland, they should have no trouble finding buyers.

To put it in pirate terms: this isn’t a crime where someone boarded your ship and made off with your treasure, this is a crime where someone stole your ship and can use it now to legally earn treasure.

So if this crime could only happen in Iceland, is there something Icelandic about it?

Icelanders Are Warm

Here in the States we think we’re being green by unplugging our surge protectors at night, taking short showers or being Everybody’s Dad about the thermostat. Icelandic culture is the opposite. With their heat, electricity and even the water they shower in coming straight out of the ground.

We reached out to Rebekka Hlín at ON Power, Iceland’s largest geothermal power company to explain. There on a hellish landscape they extract lava-fueled hot water from underground at the extremely metal-sounding Hellisheiðarvirkjun (Hellisheidi Power Plant). The steam comes from melting snow and glaciers when it interacts Iceland’s many volcanoes.

“The possibility of harnessing geothermal energy has drastically shaped the Icelandic culture of today,” Hlín said. “Icelandic people are used to a certain standard of living, involving the vast amounts of hot water that is available to us at low prices. District heating with geothermal hot water, public swimming pools and hot tubs, warm beaches, greenhouses and snow-melting systems are all possible because we have this energy source at our fingertips.”

In addition to which, Icelandic actress Margrét Erla Maack says, Icelanders are known to appreciate a certain degree of energy consuming hospitality. There’s three separate words for it: kósý, huggulegt, and næs. Kósý is similar to the English “cosy” and if you want to remember the third one, just remember when someone makes you a hot drink in Iceland you can take one sip and do the Borat voice: “Very næs!”  

Huggulegt (neutral, masculine: huggulegur, fem: hugguleg) refers to something cozy and nice where thought has gone into it, and some prep. “It can also be used about a fashionable and nice and beautiful person (all three at once).”

Yes, the Icelandic word for “cool” actually means “warm.”

To make up for the days when no one is certain if the sun actually rose or set: Icelanders are known for making their homes, theaters and bars huggelegt—warm and inviting without feeling stuffy.

Hlín says this culture of usage goes to the core of what it means to be Icelandic. “The extremely low cost of electricity and hot water does affect the way we use it, leaving the tap running, leaving the lights on, opening windows with the heat still running, those are all things people tend to do here in Iceland. However, with the younger generation, awareness of energy waste is getting widespread so hopefully this will change. On the other hand, we do have plentiful electricity and hot water and are therefore able to use it as we please.”

So if this source is so abundant, could our criminals just go off the grid in some remote region?

“In Iceland, 90 percent of areas are able to tap into a geothermal hot water heating system,” she said. “These are areas located within or near the active volcanic zone of Iceland where numerous high- and low-temperature areas supply the hot water. The 10 percent that are left out are mostly the Western fjords and the most Eastern part of Iceland. The bedrock in those areas is older and therefore colder, meaning that the groundwater is also colder. These 10 percent most often have water-heaters as are common in the States.”

So good luck to the Icelandic police tracking down a change in power on an island where it’s pitch black at 8:30 a.m., server farms in the middle of nowhere use more power than homes, and where it’s considered polite to open the windows at a party with the heat on in the middle of winter.

But still this supply of could have huge implications for both the greater Icelandic economy and the economy of our thieves as more companies move into Iceland. According to Bloomberg, 70 percent of bitcoin mining operations are currently in China and the government is planning on pulling the plug on them in the next two months.

ON Power, meanwhile, is in the process of installing charging stations for electric cars. “The number of electric cars on the streets is slowly going up because accessing these charging stations is getting easier everyday,” said Hlín. “Icelandic winters can be harsh and many people are not ready to face those conditions on electric cars. As soon as longer lasting batteries will be available for these electric cars, they will get more popular.”

Or maybe someone will find another use for them.

Brendan Sullivan is a writer, producer, and author of the memoir Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives. Disclosure: he owns cryptocurrencies. Follow him on Twitter.