UK High Court ruling in a crypto hack – Bitcoins are property subject to Asset Preservation Orders

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London’s Commercial Court recognizes Bitcoin as “property” in an interim judgment on a cryptocurrency hacking case. A remarkable court ruling moves the crypto scene. At least in the United Kingdom. Crypto currencies are regarded as property. Here is the story.

The case

Liam Robertson, CEO of Alphabit Fund, a crypto-fund that manages $195 million, has been granted an Asset Preservation Order (APO) over more than GBP 1 million of Bitcoin (100 Bitcoin) fraudulently obtained from him in a spear phishing attack.

Liam Robertson and Alphabit
Liam Robertson – CEO Alphabit

Back in July 2019 when Robertson was on the phone with an executive of an algorithmic trading fund he agreed to transfer 100 bitcoins, Robertson told Decrypt in an interview.

Robertson claimed that the phone line was bugged. After hearing that Robertson planned to send his bitcoins to the fund’s chief investment officer, the perpetrators used complex spyware to clone the CIO’s email address. Then, posing as the CIO, they sent an email to Robertson requesting that the funds be sent to perpetrator’s Bitcoin wallet address. Thinking he was sending money to the company’s CIO, Robertson performed the transaction.

The algorithmic trading fund recognized that it’d been hacked and called Robertson up the next day, July 6th, to warn him about the scam. But it was too late, the Bitcoins were gone.

The fraudulent transfer had been 100 Bitcoin. By using blockchain intelligence company Chainalysis, 80 of the Bitcoin were tracked to a wallet held by the UK arm of San Francisco-headquartered Coinbase. Another 15 Bitcoins were sent to LocalBitcoins.com, and additional 5 to a cold wallet address.

Court order and Coinbase refund

According to Jones, Coinbase was supportive and had been willing to freeze the Bitcoin for a short period of time, “but was limited in what it could [do], given its contractual and regulatory obligations, unless complying with a court order”. Consequently, Jones applied for an APO to secure the 80 Bitcoin and a Bankers Trust Order to reveal the identity of the wallet-holder.

Following the court order, Robertson got the funds back from Coinbase on Tuesday. told Decrypt He plans to use similar courses of actions to get the remaining 15 bitcoins back from LocalBitcoins.com and 5 bitcoins held in the cold wallet. Things become more difficult, however, when the stolen funds sit in a wallet that’s not held in an exchange.

Legal consequences

Thus far, British law says that Bitcoin is “data,” not property, meaning that you can’t claim it back if someone’s stolen it. But Robertson’s lawyers, Marc Jones of Stewarts and David Heaton of Brick Court Chambers, argued that Bitcoin is, in fact, his property. Since the theft of his Bitcoin didn’t entail a transfer of the property title, Robertson still “owned” the stolen bitcoins, they asserted.

Though it’s only an interim judgment, it sets a legal precedent. Marc Jones, Liam Roberston‘s attorney, says: “If someone finds themselves in a similar position, they’ll be able to refer to this case and say; ‘Judge, we’re not asking you to do something that’s never been done before—see the decision in Robertson v Persons Unknown.’” 

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