There are unconfirmed reports today that at least one Bitcoin miner has been raided by police because unusually high power consumption led authorities to suspect that he was clandestinely growing marijuana. The tip comes from an IRC chat captured by blogger Mike Esspe, though there are no corroborating details.
Bitcoin is the anonymous virtual currency that uses distributed computing power to validate transactions. Users who dedicate their CPU cycles to the network are potentially rewarded with Bitcoins. It’s like gold mining, except that instead of digging, a miner uses cryptographic math.
Like marijuana growing operations, Bitcoin mining runs up high electricity bills and produces a lot of heat because it employs super-fast computers. High power consumption has previously alerted police to marijuana growing operations and led to busts.
According to one Bitcoin mining blog, “The Canadian town of Mission, B.C. has a bylaw that allows the town’s Public Safety Inspection Team to search people’s homes for grow ops if they are using more than 93 kWh of electricity per day.”
While it’s unlikely that police will be surveilling the power usage of private residences as a matter of course, it is possible that police will look to electric bills and heat radiation to confirm a suspicion. But increasingly ubiquitous prosumer computing could well lead to false positives, not just for Bitcoin miners, but for hardcore gamers, as well as anyone running video rendering farms or web servers from home. It will be interesting to see how courts will adapt to such uses when interpreting reasonable suspicion standards.
Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.