British cops busted down the doors of an industrial unit in the suburbs of Birmingham last month, expecting to find a massive illicit cannabis grow. Inside, cops did indeed find an illegal harvesting facility – but instead of weed, the criminals were actually harvesting cryptocurrency.
Earlier this year, the West Midlands Police began receiving tips that drug traffickers might be running an illegal cannabis grow out of a unit in the Great Bridge Industrial Estate in Sandwell. Police observed that an excessive amount of electrical wiring and ventilation had been installed in the unit and that people were entering the facility at unusual hours of the day. A police drone also confirmed that the unit was radiating a large amount of heat at all times.
In a statement, the West Midlands Police explained that the excessive heat, wiring, and ventilation were all “classic cannabis factory signs.” Based on these suspicions, cops raided the facility on May 18th. But when they entered the unit, there wasn't one single weed plant in sight. Instead, police discovered nearly 100 computers that were configured to serve as a massive bitcoin mine.
“It’s certainly not what we were expecting,” said Sandwell Police Sergeant Jennifer Griffin. “It had all the hallmarks of a cannabis cultivation set-up and I believe it’s only the second such crypto mine we’ve encountered in the West Midlands.”
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies use complex mathematical equations to ensure the safety and anonymity of financial transactions. These equations are so complex that they can only be solved by thousands of powerful computers working in tandem, though. To handle this extreme computation need, entrepreneurs have set up bitcoin mining operations that offer computer power in exchange for a percentage of the currency that they mine.
Bitcoin mining operations have sprung up all across the globe, but the constant 24-7 operation of droves of power-hungry computers is bad news for the environment. According to Digiconomist, bitcoin mining now consumes 1 percent of the world's total electricity and creates nearly 59 megatons of carbon emissions each year – more than entire countries like Libya or New Zealand produce.
Despite the environmental impact, cryptocurrency mining is perfectly legal in the UK and most of the rest of the world. West Midlands Police quickly discovered that this specific mining operation was using illegal means to offset their own energy costs, though. Inquiries with the local utility service revealed that the operation was actually stealing thousands of UK pounds worth of electricity to power the computers.
“My understanding is that mining for cryptocurrency is not itself illegal but clearly abstracting electricity from the mains supply to power it is,” Sergeant Griffin said. “We’ve seized the equipment and will be looking into permanently seizing it under the Proceeds of Crime Act. No one was at the unit at the time of the warrant and no arrests have been made – but we’ll be making inquiries with the unit’s owner.”