RIT professor serves on prosecution team for landmark trial against operator of Bitcoin Fog

Assistant Professor Divya Ramjee uses her interdisciplinary expertise to help craft a winning case


Prior to working at RIT, Divya Ramjee worked with a number of federal agencies, including the Executive Office of the President of the United States, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition to being an assistant professor at RIT, she is also a data fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Seven years of dedicated work have come to a close for Divya Ramjee, assistant professor in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. For nearly a decade Ramjee served as a member of the prosecution team for a criminal case against the operator of Bitcoin Fog. On March 12, a jury found the defendant, Roman Sterlingov, “guilty of operating among the longest-running and most prolific bitcoin money laundering services on the darknet,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

At RIT, Ramjee works in the Department of Public Policy and the Department of Criminal Justice, and is a researcher at the ESL Global Cybersecurity Institute. Her role on the prosecution team fell at the intersection of these different disciplines: helping to illustrate evidential data, complex technical and legal jargon, and other high-level facts in a way that can be easily understood by an average jury member.

“A case like this requires not just knowledge of the law, but also technical know-how and the skill of assembling a strong case based on that technical evidence. When it comes to computer crimes, it can be very difficult to put a strong case together due to the technological factors and the covert nature of such crimes,” said Ramjee. “Added to that challenge is the task of conveying complex, technical evidence to a jury who may not have much knowledge about the subject matter.”

Prior to joining the RIT community in August 2023, Ramjee honed her skills at the intersection of technology, security, and policy by working for various federal agencies in Washington, D.C. In 2016, her experience and expertise in law and policy, paired with her understanding of the fields of cybersecurity and technology, led her to work at the U.S. Department of Justice Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS). As part of her work at CCIPS, she was assigned to work on the Bitcoin Fog case in 2017.

“I worked in a number of different federal agencies in D.C., and I was slowly getting more and more interested in issues relating to cybersecurity and technology. I spent quite a bit of time working with issues relating to infectious diseases, biotechnology, and national security, but I eventually shifted to looking at issues of technology and national security more broadly. When there was an opening at CCIPS, I applied so I could work in that realm and contribute to an important mission,” she said.

The prosecution team for the case included attorneys, FBI agents, blockchain- and cryptocurrency-experts, members of the IRS criminal investigative branch, computer scientists, and a variety of other experts. Ramjee explained that a diverse, interdisciplinary team of experts was a necessity for the team given all of the complex details involved with the charges against the defendant.

“It took the entire team quite some time to go through and distill all of the information and evidence that had been collected to display the case to a jury in an effective way. Trying to navigate how to explain something as complicated as transaction tracing and blockchain analysis was difficult for many reasons, but particularly because most people aren’t familiar with how to use cryptocurrency. People may know that Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, but they don't necessarily know how transactions work or what records exist for these transactions,” said Ramjee.

The guilty verdict was not the only important outcome of the case in terms of prosecuting cryptocurrency money laundering. The landmark case also provided an important decision regarding the admissibility of blockchain analysis via a Daubert ruling—affirming that blockchain analysis, and particularly analysis by Chainalysis Reactor software, is based on reliable principles and methods, and testimony and evidence related to the analysis may be presented for a jury’s consideration.

“The Daubert standard is used to ensure that evidence presented to the jury is reliable—an important test as technology continues to advance and simultaneously creates new ways to commit crimes and new ways to investigate them,” said Ramjee. “There are various parts of the test to determine reliability, such as if the technique has been tested, been subjected to peer review or academic publication, has a known or potential error rate, and if there is acceptance of the technique in the scientific community at large. In our case, the judge ultimately determined, after many hearings and extensive expert testimony, that blockchain analysis cleared the hurdle necessary to reach the jury.”

Now that verdict has been given, Ramjee’s involvement with the case has ended. As she reflects on her experience with this trial, her mind bends toward the value and necessity of interdisciplinary education in preparing her students for their future careers.

“I'm here at RIT because of my expertise and research at this nexus of the social sciences, law and policy, technology, and security. This case itself shows why a place like RIT is important—a place where people are doing research in these interdisciplinary areas while simultaneously educating students in a comprehensive way for the workforce,” said Ramjee. “Having an interdisciplinary background is something that the federal government and private sectors are increasingly looking for as we have to continue to evolve and innovate to combat security threats at present and in the future.”

For more information about the court case, go to the Department of Justice website.

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