Several surprising developments this week deepened the mystery of where the Mt. Gox bitcoins are.
Much of the Mt. Gox-related Bitcoin news this week has contradicted official statements from the bankrupt exchange and Mt. Gox Chief Executive Officer Mark Karpeles about how the bitcoins were stolen.
Over the weekend a March 11 petition that was filed with the Tokyo District Court by the lawyers working on the Chicago-based Mt. Gox class action suit became public. Using data from the Bitcoin tracking website Coinsight, the petition alleged that an astounding 530,000 bitcoins were withdrawn from the exchange's accounts between March 7 and March 10.
That was more than a week after Mt. Gox filed for bankruptcy protection, declaring that nearly all of its bitcoins were gone, and two weeks after the exchange went dark.
"How is it possible to perform transactions with something that is supposed to have disappeared?" the petition asked.
Suspicions deepened further on Wednesday with the publication of a study by two Zurich University researchers that punctured a huge hole through the explanation that Mt. Gox had given for how the bitcoins were stolen.
The study came to the stunning conclusion that "transaction malleability" - the flaw in the Bitcoin code Mt. Gox said hackers used to steal most of the 850,000 missing bitcoins - could explain the loss of no more than 386 bitcoins.
Using this flaw, hackers can make a transaction appear not to have occurred, which then enables them to make a second withdrawal from the same account.
Even if true, the notion that Mt. Gox officials never would have noticed the flood of bitcoins out of their accounts until nearly all were gone never passed the smell test.
The Zurich University researchers found that only 302,000 of all the bitcoins in existence were vulnerable to a transaction malleability attack. Since the study showed that such attacks failed 78.64% of the time, that left only 386 bitcoins that could have been stolen by hackers exploiting the flaw, from Mt. Gox or anywhere else.
"Even if all of these attacks were targeted against Mt. Gox, Mt. Gox needs to explain the whereabouts of 849,600 bitcoin," the researchers concluded.
That same day - perhaps not coincidentally - the Japan-based Bitcoin exchange announced it was working with the Tokyo metropolitan police, although no official police investigation has been launched.
"Mt. Gox Co. Ltd hereby announces that it has submitted necessary electronic records and other related documents," the company said in a statement, and "continues to make efforts to clarify facts as quickly as possible and to recover from damages."
It may be a long time before we find out who really has the stolen Mt. Gox bitcoins. But the more we find out - remember how Mt. Gox miraculously found 200,000 "lost" bitcoins last week? - the less surprised anyone will be if the real culprits turn out to be some bad actors at Mt. Gox itself.
And if that's the case, the people who had bitcoins stuck at Mt. Gox when it shut down just might get some of their money back, after all.
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- Zurich University:
Bitcoin Transaction Malleability and Mt.Gox (PDF)
Mt. Gox Working with Police on 650,000 Missing Bitcoins
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