Government officials can’t seem to make their minds up about bitcoin. Politicians like the underlying technology, they are prone to insist, but aren’t sure about the cryptocurrency itself, which is used by criminals to launder money, they reiterate. In as many weeks, European Commission-affiliated groups have issued two seemingly contradictory statements on the matter. Either bitcoin and its accompanying blockchain are tools for money laundering or they are tools for providing accountability and auditability. Which is true?
Blockchain Good, Bitcoin Bad
On February 1, the European Commission (EC) launched its Blockchain Observatory and Forum in Brussels. The programme is designed to “highlight key developments of the blockchain technology, promote European actors and reinforce European engagement with multiple stakeholders involved in blockchain activities.” A press release quotes Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip as saying: “Technologies like blockchain can help reduce costs while increasing trust, traceability and security.”
The 900-word press release makes no mention of bitcoin or cryptocurrency, which is quite an achievement given that blockchain would not exist were it not for the invention of decentralized currencies. The EC isn’t obligated to shout out bitcoin while extolling the benefits of blockchain technology of course, and the very fact that Europe’s primary legislative body is throwing its might behind distributed ledger technology bodes well.
A Money Launderer’s Paradise?
Last week, news.Bitcoin.com reported on a workshop hosted by EU law enforcement unit Europol. Its theme revolved around drawing up measures to combat money laundering associated with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. We wrote:
In the statement issued following the event, Europol has claimed that the adoption of cryptocurrencies for criminal purposes, including terrorist financing, is rising. In order to combat the allegedly growing threat, Europol announced that it will “continue to coordinate across EU Member States and beyond in an endeavor to effectively respond to this rising threat.”
This contradicts the findings of a recent report which concluded that bitcoin transactions associated with illegal activities have fallen to just 0.61%, and which found a 40% drop in such activity since 2013. It is beyond dispute that criminals have and continue to use bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to launder cash, just as they do with all monetary systems. The extent to which this occurs, however, is a matter of some debate.
Moving illicit funds around on a blockchain is certainly easier than transferring millions of dollars between banks. But concealing the route those funds take on public ledgers is all but impossible. As criminals are starting to discover, cryptocurrencies really aren’t suited to money laundering. While there are means of obfuscating or partially masking a bitcoin’s origin, doing so at scale is extremely hard. As this week’s EU press release notes, blockchain is a great means of storing information, immutably and indefinitely. Given the “high levels of traceability and security” which the European Community rightly talks of, some may question whether bitcoin and its ilk are the hive of criminal activity they’re frequently painted to be.
Perhaps the best interpretation of the opposing statements of Europol and the European Commission Blockchain Observatory and Forum comes down to departmental needs. It is in the interests of law enforcement to highlight online criminal activity, as to downplay the threat would be to effectively write off funding to combat it. Similarly, it is in the interests of a blockchain incubator to play up the technology’s many benefits, whilst omitting all mention of its downsides. The truth surely lies somewhere in between: blockchain is inherently neither good nor bad, but can be purposed in many ways. Beware the sound bites of officials with agendas to push.
Do you think laundering cash with cryptocurrencies is easier or harder than with fiat currencies? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Author: Kai Sedgwick