The Government Wants Your Crypto Data. And Lots of It.
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The Venezuelan government recently announced that its Administrative Service for Identification, Migration and Foreigners (SAIME) is now accepting bitcoin as a payment method for passports.
The problem with that is that bitcoin is not anonymous but pseudonymous.
To interact with any government using bitcoin is to reveal to them the wallet you are paying from. The blockchain is public. When commentators like Caitlin Johnstone and Stefan Molyneux or organizations such as the Mises Institute or TOR Foundation ask for bitcoin contributions, one can follow the money with a blockchain explorer to see how much comes in and how it is spent. One can also see who gave it to them if a donor hasn't exercised some caution in protecting their privacy.
I would never want the Venezuelan government, the US government, or anyone else who might misuse that information to be able to peek into my crypto finances, especially not through a transaction tied to my passport. Who's to say that the next time I appear at an immigration checkpoint I won't be flagged for having too fat of a bitcoin wallet or putting money toward some politically incorrect use?
Though the Venezuelan government dedicates a fraction of the resources to spying on its citizens that the US government does to spying on Americans, there is no need to carelessly provide any government with extra personal data. Knowledge in the hands of the state will be used as a weapon in the hands of the state.
On February 6, 2018, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) chairman Chris Giancarlo before the US Senate Banking Committee revealed that the US government uses spot exchanges such as Bitstamp, Coinbase, itBit, and Kraken to glimpse into the industry.
Chainalysis, run by Kraken's cofounder and former COO Michael Gronager, exists to tie personal identity to bitcoin transactions. Their business model is the reduction of other people's personal privacy, data that they then monetize by selling it to their customers. Far more sinister than Google or Facebook, which at least anonymize data prior to selling it to advertisers, Chainalysis links real-life personal data, including legal name, to a specific wallet. Many blockchain analysis competitors exist.
Coinbase has recently come under fire for having a similar service, Coinbase Analytics, which has a contract with the US Department of Homeland Security. “Coinbase joins a crowded field of cryptocurrency analytics companies – Chainalysis, Elliptic, CipherTrace and others – vying for a piece of the federal pie. Agencies from all corners of the U.S. government regularly contract with crypto intel firms, inking deals for their tracing software worth millions, and sometimes stretching years,” reports Coindesk.
The bitcoin exchanges that KYC (know your customer) their customers are a perfect place for industry data collection to take place. Coinbase could monetize and simplify that data collection process, not only charging fees for their exchange services, but taking it a step further and monetizing their user data, making their users the product. This is especially pernicious in the privacy obsessed, smaller-government realm of cryptocurrency.
How much money did it take for this $8 billion company to sell out crypto consumers to the US government? Government disclosure shows that the contract has a current award amount of $49,000, with potential for another $134,750 total over the next four years.
Coinbase has reassured users that it is only collecting publicly available data about its users, nothing more, and packaging that for government use. Its CEO, Brian Armstrong, has encouraged users not to use bitcoin if they don't want to be snooped on by Coinbase, but to use privacy coins instead.
Luckily, the marketplace is responding to privacy incursions like this:
- There are exchanges that won't follow standard “know your customer” polices (or KYC), and which consequently can provide more anonymity.
- There are decentralized exchanges like Bisq that can't easily be subpoenaed because there is no central entity to subpoena.
- There are wallets that can be used to anonymize bitcoin transactions such as Wasabi Wallet, which utilizes a concept known as CoinJoin to anonymize ownership
- Bitcoin mixers too are used by some to anonymize transactions.
- Additional ways of anonymizing bitcoin purchases exist, such as with cash or through ATMs, which may or may not KYC customers.
- We are now witnessing the introduction of "privacy coins." These are designed to be far more difficult to trace—some might even say impossible—though I long ago learned that the word “impossible” is not really that accurate, as possibility or impossibility is merely a question of will and available resources.
This topic of maintaining privacy in bitcoin transactions is especially pertinent as personal privacy comes under attack.
- US Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) have introduced the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” an antiencryption bill that insists that all encryption without a government back door is illegal. To follow such an order would spell the death of encryption. Any encryption with a back door is not actually encryption.
- The pseudonymous Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex was under threat of doxxing by the New York Times and consequently deleted his popular blog out of privacy concerns. The New York Times defended itself by saying it has a policy to identify all people it writes about. Alexander, after a month of silence from the New York Times on the topic, believes the threat has subsided. The callous disregard for privacy remains.
- Google and Apple are begging governments to let them use mobile phones to monitor the whereabouts of users in the name of the latest cause against liberty—public health.
As journalist Peter Chawaga has pointed out, “Privacy is becoming one of the most scarce resources in the world.”
If these attacks on privacy were without consequence, then perhaps one might feel better about them, but as the current spate of cancel culture demonstrates—from Central Park Karen to Seattle's middle finger Karen—merely having a camera turned on a person when they're showing disagreeable behavior can be enough to shatter the fragile lives that many live. There’s almost a sociopathic hunger to destroy a person intertwined in some of this behavior. How much worse would the impact of that mob of sociopaths be if they also had access to all of a person’s financial data?
It's a great time for more encryption and more privacy, and an awful time for helping governments or any other organization populate databases that you can guarantee will one day be used heartlessly against you.