Recap: Stefan Thomas was awarded 7,002 Bitcoins over a decade ago in exchange for helping produce an animated video about the budding cryptocurrency. The programmer stored the digital currency on a highly encrypted USB drive known as an IronKey and wrote down the password on a sheet of paper for safekeeping. Predictably, that piece of paper ended up missing and the crypto has been locked in digital purgatory ever since.
Making matters worse is the face that the IronKey device has a built in mechanism that only allows for 10 password guesses before its contents are destroyed. In 2021, Thomas told The New York Times that he only has two guesses left. The story does not end there, but it does take a weird turn.
Around that same time, a team of hackers and cryptographers formed a started called Unciphered that specializes in breaking into locked drives like the one Thomas owns. In early 2023, they started working on IronKey devices similar to what they believe Thomas is in possession of as part of an operation they called Project Everest.
Slowly but surely, the team found cracks in the armor – bits of code that looked sloppy, or was written in a way that was not ideal. They bought every example of the aging device they could get their hands on and used high-end technology like CT scanners to help reverse engineer the drive, going so far as to build a full 3D model of the stick's secure enclave. In July, the work finally paid off as the team successfully read the contents of a decrypted IronKey drive for the very first time.
"We just summited Everest," proclaimed Unciphered CEO Eric Michaud.
The team has since unlocked IronKey devices more than a thousand times – all in a non-destructive manner – and even demonstrated it three times for Wired. With that sort of success rate, you would think Thomas would be chomping at the bit to strike up a deal with Unciphered and finally gain access to his Bitcoins, but that has not been the case.
According to Wired, Unciphered reached out to Thomas through a mutual associate but Thomas politely declined their assistance. In an e-mail to the publication, Thomas said he is already working with a different set of experts on the recovery and is not in a position to negotiate with someone else right now. "It's possible that the current team could decide to subcontract Unciphered if they feel that's the best option," he said, adding that, "we'll have to wait and see."
It is worth noting that Thomas likely isn't hurting for money. In the 2021 piece with The NY Times, he said he had managed to hold on to enough Bitcoin (and not lose the passwords) to give him "more riches than he knows what to do with."
Given Bitcoin's value of around $34,300 per coin, Thomas' locked haul has a value of more than $240 million as of this writing.