Man makes last-ditch effort to recover $280 million in bitcoin he accidentally threw out

The reflection of bitcoins in a computer hard drive.

Thomas Trutschel | Photothek via Getty Images

LONDON — A British man who accidentally threw out a hard drive with a trove of bitcoin on it is once again urging local city officials to let him search for it in a landfill site.

James Howells, a 35-year-old IT engineer from Newport, Wales, says he discarded the device while clearing out his home in 2013. He claims he had two identical laptop hard drives, and that he mistakenly binned the one containing the cryptographic “private key” needed to access and spend his bitcoins.

After all these years, Howells is still confident he’d be able to recover the bitcoin. Though the external part of the hard drive may be damaged and rusted, he believes the glass platter inside may still be intact.

“There is a good chance the platter inside the drive is still intact,” he told CNBC. “Data recovery experts could then rebuild the drive or read the data directly from the platter.”

Howells says he had 7,500 bitcoins which, at today’s prices, would be worth over $280 million. He says the only way to regain access to it would be through the hard drive he threw in the trash eight years ago.

But he needs permission from his local council to search a toxic garbage dump he believes contains the lost hardware. The landfill is not open to the public and trespassing would be considered a criminal offense.

He has offered to donate 25% of the haul — worth around $70.8 million — to a “Covid Relief Fund” for his home city if he manages to dig up the hard drive. He has also promised to fund the excavation project with the backing of an unnamed hedge fund.

But Newport City Council have so far rejected his requests to look through the landfill, citing environmental and funding concerns. And it doesn’t seem like local officials are about to budge anytime soon.

“As far as I am aware they have already rejected the offer,” Howells said. “Without even having heard our plan of action or without being given a chance to present our mitigations to their concerns regarding the environment, it’s just a straight up no every time.”

A spokesperson for the council told CNBC it had been “contacted a number of times since 2013 about the possibility of retrieving a piece of IT hardware said to contain bitcoins,” the first being “several months” after Howells first realized the drive had gone missing.

“The council has told Mr Howells on a number of occasions that excavation is not possible under our licencing permit and excavation itself would have a huge environmental impact on the surrounding area,” the council spokesperson said.

“The cost of digging up the landfill, storing and treating the waste could run into millions of pounds — without any guarantee of either finding it or it still being in working order.”

It’s not hard to imagine why Howells would want to salvage the equipment. Bitcoin prices have skyrocketed the past few months, hitting an all-time high near $42,000 last week before pulling back sharply.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that a programmer in San Francisco was locked out of 7,002 bitcoins — worth about $267.8 million today — because he forgot the password needed to unlock a small hard drive containing the private key to a digital wallet.

Bitcoin’s network is decentralized, meaning it isn’t controlled by a single individual but a network of computers. Each transaction originates from a wallet which has a “private key.” This is a digital signature and provides mathematical proof that the transaction has come from the owner of the wallet.


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