How to recover a Bitcoin wallet worth half a BILLION dollars
Posted on 30th June 2022 at 11:45
DataRecoveryCompared.com recently travelled to Wales to spend the day with Richard Hammond and his Chimp Television production crew, who were filming a documentary about the fascinating story of James Howells and his buried hard drive that contains, variably this year, anything between $250m and $750m worth of Bitcoin. Click here to see the short film.
Mr Howells’ plight was widely reported by the New Yorker last year, and continues to elicit a wide range of emotions – from hope, to pity, and even to ridicule – on social media channels on a daily basis.
But whatever your response might be to this story of a Welshman who sent a hard drive containing a Bitcoin wallet worth a few dollars to landfill back in 2013, but has risen in value at a dizzying rate in recent years, you cannot deny that the story of how he is attempting to find the drive and recover the data will make compelling TV viewing.
The team of experts that assembled at The Celtic Manor in Newport, not far from the city council landfill site where the hard drive was buried nearly 10 years ago, included:
The FLI Group: to provide the latest technology to perform the dig. They are experts in landfill reclamation projects with experience in digging this type of waste material.
Max-AI: to employ cutting-edge artificial intelligence and robotic waste sorting equipment to recycle waste on the fly, but ensure that the treasured hard drive is located efficiently.
Santia: to ensure that the site is left in a more environmentally friendly state than before, and leave behind millions of dollars' worth of technology to improve Newport County Council’s green credentials on a go forward basis.
A former landfill director of operations is also on the team as an on-site consultant.
In addition, if the Bitcoin wallet can be successfully recovered, then Mr Howells has pledged over $30m to local charitable causes, so the council has plenty of good reasons to support this project.
Can data be recovered from a damaged storage device?
But all of the above is folly, surely, as even if the hard drive is found, it will be damaged, corroded and impossible to extract data from?
After all, it has been rotting underground alongside all manner of compacted noxious waste for the last 10 years? Well, that is where the data recovery experts come in.
DataRecoveryCompared.com was on hand to learn how one of its expert partners, White Glove Data Services, a specialist data services consultancy, will be working with data recovery technicians like the ones that recovered the data from the black box of NASA's ill-fated Columbia space shuttle, to try and perform a recovery miracle once the hard drive is located.
If a drive that remarkably survived the heat and impact of a fall 35 miles from space, to land, lost, in a dry lake bed for 6 months, before being retrieved and sent to the lab was 99% recovered, then anything is possible…
(Image credit www.history.com)
The delicate task of recovering data from what can only be expected to be suffering from the most extreme of physical and potentially logical damage will need to be split into several important stages.
1) The extraction and journey to a Class 100 cleanroom
Data recovery experts will be on hand before the excavation to dry-run the different technologies and ensure that the right balance between efficient searching and safe media handling is observed.
It is anticipated that for a hard drive of this nature, with potentially glass internal platters (the disks on which the data is written), a maximum drop height of 30cm can be allowed, and only onto a cushioned bed. Any shattering of the platters will make any subsequent data recovery exponentially more difficult.
Once the target media has been located, an immediate review of how best to package it for transport will be undertaken. In most cases this means securing in an airtight, anti-static, protective case - allowing the media to dry can cause further contamination.
Given the size and sensitivity of the high tech equipment needed to perform a successful data recovery, not to mention the dust-free environment in which the work needs to be performed, the hard drive will need to be transported to a specialist laboratory.
And given the potential value of this precious cargo, consideration will also need to be given to security of course...
2) Repairing the hard drive physically
Once the device has been booked into the cleanroom, an initial evaluation as to how best to tackle the physical issues begins.
Ultimately the aim of this stage is to carry out whatever repairs might be necessary, with the single goal being to read (extract) the highest possible percentage of raw data from the drive.
It is therefore imperative to avoid heavy-handed cleaning, component replacement, electromechanical repairs or whatever other processes might be necessary to complete the task, as these can all be potentially destructive to the device and its data.
Once the very best cleaning and repair have been completed using custom tools / methods, a sector by sector copy of the available data is attempted, with a stable storage device being the target.
It is this image of the data that will be examined and manipulated in the next phase.
3) The logical reconstruction
Now that a copy of the available data is accessible on a stable storage device, the logical analysis and reconstruction can begin.
Although the size of the file required to regain access to the Bitcoin wallet is tiny in this case, there is simply no telling where on the drive the data was stored, or if the file was split up and scattered in pieces over several drive locations.
Using bespoke software tools, the Engineers will perform scans and establish what data is recoverable as is, and what might be recoverable after reconstruction and repair work. Again, the highest amount of data that can be reconstituted into readable files gives the best chance of finding this digital needle in a haystack.
It is quite common for further tools to need to be developed to overcome the often unique challenges of data recovery, and this is why it is so important only to use world-leading experts - that and the fact that one misstep can render what would have been recoverable, irrecoverable. After such a long journey to get this far, it's imperative to take a slow and methodical approach to recovery.
Data recovery expectations
So, in summary, there is much to be optimistic about even this most complicated and challenging data recovery effort, and with a bounty so rich it is easy to see why the years of effort, not to mention financial investment, can be justified.
That is not to say, of course, that any guarantees exist - data recovery is not an exact science at the best of times, and heaven only knows what condition this particular hard drive will be found in.
But assuming it is found with platters intact, and no material breach to the inside chamber of the drive, then there is every reason to expect a likely recovery in the 80%+ range.
Unusually severe component damage, or liquid / other material ingress certainly makes the job more difficult, but still in the 60%+ range.
If the platters are indeed glass, and if they are shattered, then that is a different level of complicated entirely. It still would not necessarily be considered impossible, with magnetic data rechannelling development a possibility, but it would be very expensive, take many months, and the likely success rate would be reduced significantly. 10%- range.
That said, after so many years fighting for even an audience with the council, despite having a team of experts supporting the project and very confident of its value, we can't imagine Mr Howells would give up even if such a final hurdle looked so daunting.
What happens next?
It now falls on Newport City Council, hopefully sufficiently motivated by the new documentary if not the promise of a windfall of millions to help local projects, to agree to the excavation.
It might seem like an impossible mission when taken as a whole, but if you break the project down into its constituent parts, and engage the very best professionals in each of the required areas, then it all starts to look like an endeavour that should induce universal support and encouragement.
Whatever your position on crypto currency, this is an exciting project to follow just for the engineering aspects of it, and if successful, will have immeasurable social benefits to this part of Wales.
We will certainly be watching with a keen interest, and will update this post as and when the project achieves new milestones.
Share this post: