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Breakpoint 2023: The Little JPG that Laundered Money: Illicit Finance and Privacy in Crypto

A detailed discussion on illicit finance, privacy, and the crypto industry's response, with insights from various experts.

The notes below are AI generated and may not be 100% accurate. Watch the video to be sure!


During Breakpoint 2023, a panel of experts gathered to discuss the challenges and considerations surrounding illicit finance and privacy within the cryptocurrency space. The discussion focused on the balance between ensuring privacy rights and preventing illicit activities within the ever-evolving crypto environment. Panelists included senior policy advisors and legal experts from organizations such as TRM Labs, TerraNet Ventures, Coin Center, and the Solana Foundation, offering diverse perspectives on this multifaceted issue. With a special focus on recent regulatory developments, such as the sanctioning of Tornado Cash and the proposal of new rules concerning virtual currency mixers, the conversation provided valuable insights into how the industry can innovate to enhance both security and privacy.

Key Points:

The Importance of Addressing Illicit Finance in Crypto

  • Illicit finance remains a significant concern, funding national security threats and transnational crimes such as terrorism, human trafficking, and proliferation finance.
  • The experts emphasized the need to understand and combat illicit finance within the cryptocurrency environment because of the unique traceability it offers compared to traditional means like cash or hawalas.
  • A balance needs to be struck between privacy rights and the necessity to prevent illicit activities, with calls for innovative solutions that can cater to both demands.

Privacy vs. Anonymity Debate

  • There is a distinction between privacy and anonymity within financial transactions, especially regarding regulatory expectations. Privacy does not equate to an absence of transparency but rather controlled access to sensitive data.
  • The balance between individuals' privacy rights and the requirements for anti-money laundering (AML) compliance was discussed, centering on the necessary due process before the government can access financial data.

The Tornado Cash Sanction and Its Implications

  • The U.S. government sanctioned Tornado Cash, an Ethereum mixer, because it was used to launder significant amounts of money, notably by the Lazarus group linked to North Korea.
  • The sanction has been contested by groups advocating for privacy, citing that the government does not have the authority to sanction a piece of software.
  • The sanction's effectiveness and consequences were debated, considering the potential impact on legal and privacy-conscious users.

Confounding Privacy and Compliance Within the AML Frameworks

  • The panel discussed the recent U.S. proposal to categorize virtual currency mixers as a primary money laundering concern, which could impose additional reporting and record-keeping requirements on financial institutions.
  • This potential policy move highlights the challenge of ensuring privacy without compromising the ability to trace illicit finance.
  • Concerns about the cost and burden of compliance leading to risk aversion among financial service providers were raised, emphasizing the need for a balanced and fair implementation that would not stifle innovation or access.

Facts + Figures

  • Illicit activity is motivated by profit, fueling transnational organized crime and posing a threat to national security.
  • Most illicit activity, such as supporting terrorism or bypassing sanctions, relies on financial mechanisms.
  • Tornado Cash was heavily utilized by illicit actors, including North Korea's Lazarus group, leading to its U.S. government sanction.
  • The Tornado Cash sanction resulted in approximately an 85% reduction in its transaction volume.
  • Coin Center is suing OFAC and the U.S. Treasury for sanctioning Tornado Cash, asserting the lack of authority to sanction software.
  • The virtual currency mixer proposal is open for public comment until January 2024.
  • Concerns were raised that increased compliance costs could lead to financial institutions de-risking and subsequently reducing service accessibility.
  • Suggestions were made to leverage the public ledger properties of crypto to create compliant yet private financial crime solutions.

Top quotes

  • "Most illicit activity is not just done as part of activism or just for its own sake. It's really normally to make money." - Carol House, explaining the importance of addressing illicit finance.
  • "Privacy does not equal anonymity." - Carol House, on the privacy vs. anonymity debate.
  • "We need to put the level of cryptocurrency used in illicit finance in context and address it proportionally." - Landon Zinda, on the importance of context in cryptocurrency regulation.
  • "We're not trying to push this community out. To the contrary, we want to work with the community to figure out what regulation makes sense in the crypto space." - Kristen Erthum, discussing government intentions.
  • "We can't trace those, we just can't, but we can trace crypto." - Isabella Chase, on the traceability of cryptocurrency versus traditional finance methods.
  • "Risk mitigation doesn't mean risk elimination." - Carol House, on the government's regulatory approach.

Questions Answered

Why is illicit finance a significant concern in the cryptocurrency space?

Illicit finance fuels crimes and national security threats, making it a top concern for policymakers. In the context of cryptocurrency, its digital nature enables rapid value transfer across borders, which can be exploited by malicious actors. Regulators aim to find effective strategies to prevent cryptocurrencies from being used to finance illegal activities.

What distinguishes privacy from anonymity in financial regulations?

Privacy within financial regulations allows for controlled access to sensitive data without complete anonymity. It represents a balance where personal financial activities are protected, yet the information can be disclosed under certain conditions for legal or security purposes.

What led to the sanction of Tornado Cash by the U.S. government?

Tornado Cash was sanctioned because it effectively broke the link between the sender and recipient of Ethereum transactions, which was heavily exploited by illicit actors. Specifically, it was used by North Korea's Lazarus group to launder stolen funds, posing a significant national security threat.

What is the debate concerning the balance between privacy and countering illicit finance in the crypto industry?

The debate centers around providing individuals with the right to privacy in their financial transactions while also ensuring that there are sufficient means to counteract illicit finance. This involves creating systems that offer privacy without hindering the traceability needed for AML measures.

How will the proposal related to virtual currency mixers impact the financial industry?

If adopted, financial institutions would be required to keep records and report transactions that pass through virtual currency mixers. While not a ban, it would impose enhanced due diligence and reporting requirements that aim to understand and reduce illicit finance without completely compromising user privacy.