The man who spent years looking for a hard drive in a landfill

His name is James Howells and he lives in Newport, in Wales. He mined 7,500 bitcoins in just a week when no one else was doing it, but then he forgot about it and the hard drive he kept it on ended up in a landfill.

Now Howells has spent years trying to find that hard drive, which at the moment would be worth more than 315 million euros if he can locate it and recover the data. He has left his job to dedicate himself to it, but his city council it won’t let you look it up: They say that removing the landfill it is supposedly in could cause environmental damage.

The story of this tragedy —there are other similar ones— is wonderfully narrated in The New Yorker, where they reveal how Howells soon realized his mistake. He then tried to start searching for the hard drive, and that has ended up becoming his particular obsession.

One life and one mission: find the hard drive

Howells’ agony was growing at the same rate as the value of that hard drive, which was already worth five million euros when the search began. She initially she fell off the soul to the ground: The garbage in that place occupied an area similar to what fifteen football fields would occupy.

However, shortly after, he contacted the person in charge of the landfill, and he gave him hope: the landfill does not fill up with garbage just like that: there is order in chaos. It was feasible to locate the area where the hard drive might have been dumped—about 2,500 square feet—and all he needed was permission from the council to start digging around the dump.

$256 million in Bitcoin, one lost password, and two attempts left: the story of a German engineer unable to access his wallet

There are doubts as to whether the story of how Howells mined the bitcoins — too fast, according to some critics — but the truth is that he still couldn’t find the disk in the dump because they didn’t give permission. He contacted his representative in the Welsh Parliament, in Cardiff, and with the British Parliament in London. He contacted investors and even reached an agreement with two businessmen who agreed to finance the disk recovery operation: Howells would keep a third of what they managed to recover.

He ended up offering the Newport city council 25% of what was found so that it could be used for recovery of economic damages from COVID-19, but even for that: the city did not accept. He created a presentation with all the details and estimated that the search would cost about five million pounds, but there might be room for further funding. With a team of 25 people, he could complete the search operation in the designated area in less than a year.

The council continues to refuse to give permission for the operation. Government officials say the project is too uncertain and too risky for the environment. And there they are, perhaps, those 7,500 bitcoins. Lost like so many others.

try again

But Howells doesn’t give up, and has created a proposal which would be supported by money provided by venture capital firms. In total, he has 11 million dollars. according to that proposal.

The goal is to get permission from the town hall to search among those 110,000 tons of garbage. According to his estimates, the process would take a maximum of three yearsalthough there is a more modest proposal of 6 million dollars that would last 18 months.

To achieve success, Howells has created a group of eight experts in fields such as excavations, waste management, data extraction or ordering algorithms via artificial intelligence. Among them is even one of the advisers which recovered data from the black box of the crashed space shuttle Columbia.

In those theories, for example, he would use Boston Dynamics’ “Spot” robots, which would be used as night surveillance patrols and during the day would roam the entire area in search of something that resembled the lost hard drive.

The interest generated by the project even led Richard Hammond, one of the hosts of the famous television show “Top Gear”, to publish a short documentary on this story. The project includes a plan to reuse that space sustainably, building a solar or wind farm when it’s all over

If all else fails, Howells even considers going to court to finally get permission from the council. At the moment everything is paralyzed.

Image: Geoff Livingston

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