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Bitcoin not ideal for cyber crime, says Filecoin Foundation chair

Bitcoin was recovered by the FBI from the Colonial Pipeline ransomware cyber criminals DarkSide, sparking privacy concerns around cryptocurrencies.

Back in early May, a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline forced the company to pay the hackers US$5 million in cryptocurrencies. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the FBI had successfully recovered US$2.3 million of the ransom in Bitcoin. 

Those who really understood Bitcoin — and blockchain technology’s digital trail of crumbs that led to the crypto’s recovery — were gobsmacked. What could those cybercriminals possibly have been thinking?

Pioneering blockchain lawyer Marta Belcher — general counsel at Protocol Labs and special counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy rights advocacy group — , says many people still do not realize that Bitcoin is not anonymous — it is pseudonymous. 

“You're having a public key recorded permanently on a ledger forever. And anyone can see that,” Belcher explained, in a video interview with Forkast.News. “The authorities can see that. In some ways, it's a shortcut for law enforcement.”

Instead of something very traceable by the government, Belcher says having a truly decentralized device for finance is essential to privacy and civil liberties. 

“I like to think about this photo that I saw from the Hong Kong protests. There are these photos where there are these long lines at the subway stations because the protesters wanted to buy their train tickets using cash because they didn't want their electronic purchases to place them at the scene of the protest,” Belcher said. “That really underscores that a cashless society is a surveillance society and the importance of certain technologies that can enable anonymous transactions.” 

Belcher told Forkast.News that this is how anonymity can enhance civil liberties, and also why privacy coins — fully private and anonymous — matter. 

Nevertheless, the U.S. government and governments around the world are applying similar levels of surveillance to cryptocurrencies as they do to the traditional financial system. The U.S. Department of Justice has named privacy coins “anonymity-enhanced cryptocurrencies” and insists that they are potentially criminal — this fends off the possibility of people making anonymous transactions through cryptocurrencies. 

Belcher views the central bank digital currency movement in the same way — as a type of government surveillance that could potentially threaten civil liberties. Hypothetically, when CBDCs are given to people as their only financial tool, every action can be traced by the government. 

“People really need to understand that financial transactions are a window deep into someone's life, deep into their politics, deep into what they're doing, their location. And that these types of transactions are incredibly sensitive,” Belcher said. “I'm very concerned about the idea of all money being digitally administered by a government.”.

In order for people to feel secure about privacy in their transactions, Belcher insists that governments need to be more precise and careful when regulating the new, decentralized part of finance. 

As one of the most essential features of cryptocurrency is being able to write one’s own computer codes to program adaptively for different transactions, Belcher believes it is imperative for regulators to distinguish illegal crypto programming activities from the rest. 

“It's just so, so important that that's not what regulators do, that they take a more nuanced approach and that when they're talking about the things that they want to regulate,” he said. “It's not the writing of the code, it's other behaviors.” 

Watch Marta Belcher’s full interview with Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau to learn more about her thoughts on the U.S. government surveillance on crypto, central bank digital currency, exploring decentralized finance, NFTs and more.

Highlights

  • Crypto not good for criminals: “[The Colonial Pipeline hack] is a great example of why Bitcoin is not a good tool for criminals. The authorities have been able to quickly recover this Bitcoin. We don't know the details of how, but this really underscores that a technology where all transactions are permanently and publicly recorded on a ledger is not actually that great of a tool for crime.”
  • Governments challenge privacy: “Unfortunately, what we've actually seen recently is a trend where the U.S. government and other governments around the world have actually been pushing to take the surveillance that happens in the traditional financial system and to extend it to cryptocurrency. We've actually seen the government pushing back on the ability of people to make anonymous transactions and to transact anonymously using cryptocurrency.”
  • Computer code protected by the First Amendment: “This actually is a really sticky area. We've already seen some instances where regulators are making statements that are frankly just anathema to the First Amendment when they're talking about the way that they might be regulating this computer code. We just have to remember that when you're talking about DeFi, you're talking about these types of regulations, fundamentally, what you're talking about is code.”
  • The threats of hosting non-fungible tokens on centralized servers: “You want to make sure that it's going to be around, even if whatever company it was that was hosting the server goes out of business. You want it to be around 100 years from now. You don't want to just be around five years from now. For that reason, it really doesn't make sense to store NFTs on the traditional Web. You just can't count on NFTs still being there in X amount of time. It's one of the big use cases right now for [the InterPlanetary File System].”
https://open.spotify.com/episode/1PpfCtpw2607YlkLQ0etqp

Transcript

Angie Lau: What is the future of our data rights and the internet? How should we regard privacy in the future of crypto and potentially cashless societies? And what's all at stake in a Web 3 world?

Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into blockchain and the emerging technologies that shape our world at the intersection of business, politics and economy. It's what we cover right here on Forkast.News. I'm Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau.

Well, the Department of Justice has announced that the FBI has successfully recovered millions of Bitcoin dollars from the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hackers. In early May, a cyberattack forced the company to halt operations [and] pay the hackers known as DarkSide US$5 million worth of crypto. Now, the U.S. Justice Department says it has successfully recovered US$2.3 million in Bitcoin, and that news actually sent the crypto market plunging.

What does this mean for crypto as a medium for illicit activities? What does it mean for privacy? What does it mean for tracking?

We'll discuss all of that and more with today's guest. She’s the general counsel of Protocol Labs, special counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, chair of the Filecoin Foundation, and one of blockchain's most prominent legal voices today. Please welcome to the show, Marta Belcher. 

Marta. Welcome to the show.

Marta Belcher: Thank you so much for having me, Angie. I'm so excited to be here.

Lau: I’m excited to have you on, because there's so much to talk about. But let's talk about that first topic here. It's really top of mind for people. Currently, we are experiencing a little bit of a crypto pullback in terms of Bitcoin and other coin prices. Certainly, this big hacking event, that was followed up by a ransom of Bitcoins, and then, subsequently, the recovery that the FBI was able to conduct. That has kind of caused real consternation in the market. What is the greater impact here of all of those events?

Belcher: Well, I think first of all it's hard to tell what causes price fluctuations in cryptocurrency markets. They can be pretty volatile, and it's hard to say. Correlation here definitely is not necessarily causation. But I do think that this case is a great example of why Bitcoin is not a good tool for criminals. The authorities have been able to quickly recover this Bitcoin. We don't know the details of how, but this really underscores that a technology where all transactions are permanently and publicly recorded on a ledger is not actually that great of a tool for crime.

Unfortunately, it's a pretty common refrain for critics of crypto to say that cryptocurrency facilitates crime. But notably, criminals have used cash for quite a long time to commit crimes, and we don't call for a ban for cash as a result.

Similarly, I just don't think it makes sense to blame the technology. We don't blame Ford when one of its cars is used as a getaway vehicle in a bank robbery. So here, it's a great counterexample for folks who say that cryptocurrency facilitates crime.

Lau: Certainly, that really is starting to debunk what a lot of even central bankers everyone from Christine Lagarde over in Europe and top voices across the spectrum of regulatory bodies they all point to the same thing, that there is a terrorism aspect to it. But help us understand a little bit more. If there is an ability for us to track very publicly traced transactions on blockchain, why continue that line of criticism when clearly the FBI has even proven that there is an ability to recover a lot of that back?

Belcher: It’s sort of, in some ways, a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology. I really think people don't realize that Bitcoin is not anonymous — it's pseudonymous — and you're having a public key recorded permanently on a ledger forever. And anyone can see that. The authorities can see that. In some ways, it's a shortcut for law enforcement. I'm very glad that this was the outcome, that there was a very quick recovery of Bitcoin after this ransomware attack, which was, of course, awful.

Lau: That is the one obvious aspect. Then the other obvious aspect is the counter to that. Well, if it's so easily traced, why would I value it as a cryptocurrency? Why would I value it as something that I want to have in my wallet? What's your view on potentially this making many people nervous about the traceability of crypto?

Belcher: I actually admit that actually one of the most important things about cryptocurrency is the ability for some cryptocurrencies — for the underlying technology — to enable you to take the anonymity of cash and import it to the online world.

Now, Bitcoin is pseudonymous, but there are privacy coins out there. From a civil liberties perspective, this is an incredibly important technology.

I like to think about this photo that I saw from the Hong Kong protests. There are these photos where there are these long lines at the subway stations because the protesters wanted to buy their train tickets using cash because they didn't want their electronic purchases to place them at the scene of the protest. And to me, that really underscores that a cashless society is a surveillance society and the importance of certain technologies that can enable anonymous transactions. And so I do think that from a civil liberties perspective, why privacy coins, in particular, are so important.

Lau: In your view, what role does blockchain in cryptocurrencies play in preserving privacy for citizens? Tell us a little bit more about that technology. Do you think that we're going to start seeing more trends in privacy coins or privacy tokens?

Belcher: Well, unfortunately, what we've actually seen recently is a trend where the U.S. government and other governments around the world have actually been pushing to take the surveillance that happens in the traditional financial system and to extend it to cryptocurrency. We've actually seen the government pushing back on the ability of people to make anonymous transactions and to transact anonymously using cryptocurrency.

We've seen them — just as one example — in the Department of Justice crypto enforcement framework that came out recently. They created this acronym called anonymity-enhanced cryptocurrencies, i.e. privacy coins, and have been arguing that just using these is evidence of potentially committing crimes, which I think is absolutely not fair. It's utterly important to understand that financial transactions being anonymous does not mean necessarily that these transactions are illicit. Unfortunately, we've come to just accept in the traditional banking system and the traditional financial system that so many of our transactions are frankly turned over to the government by default without a warrant. We're seeing that increasingly pushed onto cryptocurrency. It's definitely a place where there's a lot of friction right now, and an area where I'm really concerned for our civil liberties.

Lau: And what's the pushback? What do we need to consider as we really kind of sit at the apex of this issue?

Belcher: Well, I think that there are some very important fundamental questions about civil liberties. One of the things I've seen repeatedly is there are some cryptocurrency advocates who say, well, look, as long as we're just being regulated the same way as the traditional financial system, that's fine. We're not going to push back beyond that. And for me, that's really concerning because, for whatever reason, we all seem to have just accepted that banks turn over our financial transactions to the government without a warrant in a system of mass surveillance. In my view, that is actually unconstitutional. We're really getting to a place where — zooming out — we really need to think about our values not just in the cryptocurrency space, but also whenever as it relates to all financial transactions.

Lau: We increasingly are talking about the central bank-backed digital dollar. Here in Asia, China is light-years ahead to be specific, seven years ahead... multiple trials in place. We're seeing rollout and impact and influence across Asia as other nations are also embracing and exploring a CBDC. We're starting to hear that from even Jerome Powell over at the Federal Reserve in the United States, exploring what a CBDC could potentially look like. There's the Digital Dollar Foundation and all the rest.

But when we talk about CBDCs one big thing that is a concern for a lot of people is tracking — the ability for a country to track every transaction and potentially control it, encourage you to spend it in one way, discourage you or ban you from spending it in another. What about the surveillance capability of blockchain technology in a digital currency? How should we regard that? And what are the concerns you have there?

Belcher: Honestly, I think CBDC, personally, I find this terrifying from a civil liberties perspective. As I've already said, I think back to those Hong Kong protest pictures and really think about what it would mean if there was no option for those protesters [but] to buy those subway tickets with cash. What if they only had the option of purchasing something that is traceable by the government? How would that change their behavior? I don't think you would have seen those protests, or they would have had to walk home. But people really need to understand that financial transactions are a window deep into someone's life, deep into their politics, deep into what they're doing, their location, and that these types of transactions are incredibly sensitive. I'm very concerned about the idea of all money being digitally administered by a government.

Lau: And so then, what's the option? That's kind of where we're all going.

Belcher: Well, it's an interesting question. Brian Brooks … the former Comptroller of the Currency, just recently was commenting that he really didn't see this as something that was in line with the way that Americans do things, sort of like we don't rely on our government necessarily for these types of innovations. It's almost like going back to the post office banking system. I don't know. I think reasonable minds can differ about the future of CBDCs and whether that's actually where we're headed. Certainly, in my view, reasonable minds can differ about whether that's a good thing.

Lau: So, back to the surveillance aspect. If cryptocurrencies also have an aspect of surveillance, if CBDC has some aspect of surveillance, where can we as individuals feel safe from a privacy point of view transacting in the future?

Belcher: A lot of that is going to depend on the policies that are being made right now. So we actually had coming out of the very end of the Trump administration, there was an attempt to shove through FinCEN. The Department of the Treasury tried to shove through a regulatory proposal that really would have extended this type of surveillance to cryptocurrency and made many of our cryptocurrency transactions visible to the government by default. Now that is still pending review.

We've also seen similar proposals recently, for example, internationally from FATF. It's really all a common theme of pushing the financial surveillance of the traditional banking system onto cryptocurrency. Unfortunately, that's a battle that's being waged right now. It really depends on our policy efforts.

Lau: I recently talked to Chris Giancarlo he’s the head of the Digital Dollar Foundation on a previous episode of Word on the Block. And one thing that I thought was really interesting that he brought up about CBDCs is that he viewed it more as a contest rather than a race that as different nations start promoting and projecting their version of CBDCs, that CBDC can take on the characteristics of that nation. And so what is the agenda? What is the monetary policy? What are the constitutional values even that potentially an American digital dollar might have, in contrast to what we might see from Japan, what we might see from Indonesia, what we might see from China, etc, etc, etc? 

Do you think that there could come a day where we could actually have a choice in the same way that we have a choice to either deal in U.S. dollars, or deal in local currency of choice, where it's liquid internally in the country, less liquid externally?

Belcher: Well, we do have a choice right now, and we have the choice of whether to use U.S. dollars or whether to use Bitcoin or whether to use Ethereum. That's one of the most exciting things about cryptocurrency, is that suddenly it's not just about which government do you think is the least likely to fail in the near future. But it goes beyond particular geopolitics. And this is the thing that's so great about cryptocurrency — is going beyond borders. And so, do we need to have yet another currency that's tied to geopolitics? I don't know. But I do know that we have a lot of great cryptocurrencies to choose from now.

Lau: That's a great way of putting it. You're absolutely right when we think about monetary fiat right now, the actual cash, they're so much connected to it beyond just a transaction between individuals. There're trade policies involved, there's foreign policy involved, there's geopolitics involved. And with cryptocurrency, there seem to be use cases involved. There are values involved. 

I'll even use IPFS and what you're doing at the Filecoin Foundation. This is a token that represents a decentralized storage concept of being the backbone of Web 3. There's value there. Instead of having to choose the clubs country-wise, we can now choose sub clubs that are more value-driven, industry-driven, more transactionally driven. I think that's a really interesting evolution of what we're talking about here.

Belcher: I completely agree. It's so powerful as well. Not just that you have these cryptocurrencies tied to particular use cases, but also the fact that inherent to many of those cryptocurrencies — certainly with Filecoin — is the ability to program your money. That's really the thing that's revolutionary about cryptocurrencies — is being able to write computer programs that automatically execute on particular transactions. In the case of Filecoin, that's automatically compensating people for storing your files. I think that's the thing that makes this particular technology so powerful.

Lau: This is a perfect segue to what I want to talk to you about next. We are a day into what we experienced, which is mass internet outages reported around the world. Websites like CNN, the Guardian, New York Times, Twitch, Pinterest, Reddit, Spotify, Amazon... the list went on and on and on. Even the UK government website went down. What do these outages say about the safety of our assets, our finances, our access to something that drives our day-to-day? I'm curious how you thought about that, and how the foundation thought about that, when you take a look at how centralized attacks tore down these sites, and what a decentralized system might have enabled us to continue to do. Just curious as to  your reaction.

Belcher: Absolutely. I mean, it's the best possible example of the importance of the decentralized Web — the fact that so much of the internet is controlled by just a few corporations, and so much of the Web is stored and can be taken down because of it being stored by centralized intermediaries. This is a great example of why it is so important and so powerful to have an alternative to that centralized model, where instead of having a model where everything is in one place and in order to retrieve a website, and getting something from across the world where instead there can be many copies of that website, and I can just retrieve the one that's closest to me. I think there really could not be a better example of why it's so important for us to decentralize the Web and have that architecture as an option. 

Lau: Just kind of expand that into the world of DeFi, decentralized finance. We often talk about tracing, tractability, etc etc. Where in DeFi, there's no KYC, there's no AML, there's no central point of access. And it is an enormous place where we're watching innovation thrive alongside unfortunately really bad actors, alongside immense opportunities, alongside all of the issues that come up when you're trying to settle the wild, wild West. Is that a challenge? Is DeFi, in your view, a challenge as it contributes to what potentially could be the future? Is it a solution or is it a problem?

Belcher: Well, I want to go back to the concept of being able to program your money. Fundamentally, what a lot of this technology boils down to is giving you the ability to transact with others directly via a computer program without any central intermediary sitting in between, and the ability for you to really just interact with others, similar to the way you interact with someone when you hand them a US$20 bill. The thing about DeFi is that in its sort of boiled-down, fundamental state, you don't have intermediators. What you have is really individuals interacting with each other.

I certainly have a lot of concerns about the way that we think about regulating transactions with other people, when the thing that we are thinking about regulating is actually computer code. This actually is a really sticky area. We've already seen some instances where regulators are making statements that are frankly just anathema to the First Amendment when they're talking about the way that they might be regulating this computer code. We just have to remember that when you're talking about DeFi, you're talking about these types of regulations, fundamentally, what you're talking about is code.

Lau: And so what does that code support, and how is that code protected? Back to the point of: Does it reflect the constitutional values which can be challenged in a court of law — which is why we're super-interested in talking with you — and/or in other nations where it's not as clear as to where individual rights actually fall.

Belcher: One of the things that's sort of unique to the American constitution is the First Amendment. And this concept, that computer code is, in fact, speech — this is so, so important. When regulators are thinking about the way they're engaging with DeFi, I think it's really important that they aren't writing regulations or bringing enforcement that is going after people for merely writing code. So obviously there are many things folks can do that ought to be illegal, that ought to be regulated. But it's very easy to latch on to: "Okay well, what did they do wrong? Well, they wrote this code.” It's just so, so important that that's not what regulators do, that they take a more nuanced approach and that when they're talking about the things that they want to regulate, it's not the writing of the code, it's other behaviors.

Lau: We've often seen that when those interests conflict, innovation gets big-footed by the greater good. And I'm curious what your thoughts are on DeFi. Do you think if DFi challenges the adoption of CBDCs, DeFi is also going to be in the crosshairs?

Belcher: I am frankly deeply concerned about the ways in which regulation in this space has hampered innovation. I am deeply concerned by the gray area that many innovators in this space are left in, particularly in the United States. Many innovators have left the United States in the cryptocurrency space. That's, in my view, not a good outcome. It's really important to have regulatory clarity, to not have issues of gray areas persisting around very important legal questions, and having those questions only answered by scattershot enforcement actions. I think that's not a good way to regulate. And I am deeply, deeply concerned about the ability for innovators to continue to innovate.

Lau: And yet, in this industry, we see that innovation thrive. It's interesting to see, as we've covered this space for the past few years, that there is a really interesting dance, almost, where innovation thrives. It's supported until it reaches tolerance, or something happens, and then there's a little bit of a clampdown, and then there's a whack-a-mole effect where, sure, you could clamp it down here and it pops up somewhere else.

I want to talk about the innovation called NFT. This is just a really fascinating space. It has evolved even beyond and is starting to, at least in the creative kind of industries. What are the legal challenges that you're experiencing right now over at Protocol Labs and IPFS when it comes to NFT?

Belcher: Actually, with regards to IPFS, and NFTs in particular, I would call it much more of an opportunity. One of the things we were talking about, the issues with the centralized web, and I think one of the issues with NFT is, you want to be able to make sure that this thing that you're buying, that you're spending all this money on, is actually going to persist into the future. You want to make sure that it's going to be around, even if whatever company it was that was hosting the server goes out of business. You want it to be around 100 years from now. You don't just want it to be around five years from now. For that reason, it really doesn't make sense to store NFTs on the traditional Web. You just can't count on NFTs still being there in X amount of time. It's one of the big use cases right now for IPFS. People say right now, "If it's not on IPFS, it's not your NFT." And really, that's what we're seeing is this real appetite for NFTs to be stored on the decentralized Web.

Lau: Do you think about that? We've heard that as well in terms of if you can ultimately have a guarantee that this is going to exist forever in a decentralized way, that at some point that's not your NFT.

It's also been reported that artists have found that their artworks have been downloaded online, sold as NFTs by other people. What happens if that happens in IPFS? Do you think about that legality and how you would respond as a platform, as a protocol? How should people be regarding that? How do you think about it legally?

Belcher: There are sort of two separate questions embedded in that question. The first is just sort of the copyright question. There are so many interesting intellectual property issues that are coming up in this space. And then I think the second issue is really just a generally a content moderation question, like, how do you think about content moderation on the decentralized web? I could jump into either of those, but I guess I'll give a high level of both.

So, on the copyright side of things, there's just a massive opportunity right now for people to do NFTs and licensing rights, and to really make sure that when you are making an NFT of something, you're taking into consideration: When someone buys NFT, are they also receiving a license, are they also actually getting copyright to the underlying artwork? These are questions that are often overlooked. They are really important questions. 

Also — bigger picture zooming out — it's really important, in my view, to keep considering openly licensing. So when you have an NFT, the fact that you're selling an NFT of something doesn't mean that you can't also mandate that the underlying work is continued to be licensed under Creative Commons, for example. So that's sort of the intellectual property side of things.

But underlying that question was this question about content moderation on the decentralized Web. How do we deal with content moderation issues? And the answer to that — there's this fantastic organization called Murmuration Labs that we are working with. It's led by Alex Feerst, who is a leading person in the content moderation area and the former head of trust and safety and general counsel of Medium. And they are building tools for content moderation on the decentralized Web. The idea is that it's not one central intermediary. It's not Facebook or Google or one individual company that's making decisions about content moderation, but rather that these content moderation decisions can be made at a node-by-node level or a gateway-by-gateway level, basically taking content moderation and scaling it in a way that works for Web 3. And so I'm really excited about these tools and the abilities that they enable, and this new concept of decentralized content moderation.

Lau: And as we wrap it up, two questions: What keeps you up at night when you think about all of the things that we face at the moment? And then [to] end it off with an optimistic note, what gets you jumping out of bed every day? So, those two things.

Belcher: Oh, my gosh. Those are great questions. Oh, my gosh. What keeps me up at night? Just to be super-honest, the answer is what doesn't keep me up at night. In the cryptocurrency space, unfortunately, there is so much regulatory uncertainty just in general. It is real. For innovators, the fear that comes from regulatory uncertainty is definitely problematic. I'm very concerned for innovators in this space and very concerned about all of the policy proposals that we're seeing. I talked already about the push for financial surveillance to be extended to cryptocurrency and to have this warrantless mass surveillance in the crypto space. This is such a trend. It's such a pattern and it is getting worse and worse, more and more traction, and it's hard to stop, frankly. And so that is definitely what's keeping me up at night.

What gets me out of bed in the morning? So, I truly believe that Filecoin is the incentive layer on top of the decentralized Web. The decentralized Web has so much potential and I'm so, so excited to be building what I think is potentially a fundamental piece of it. It's such a cool technology. And honestly, I'm so excited every day to get to work on it, and just beyond delighted to be the board chair of this organization at the Filecoin Foundation. So that's the more positive note.

Lau: I truly believe that it's these legal voices in our industry that actually do help translate beyond the technology layer, an impact layer to regulators as it pertains to the law and defend against a lot of criticism and misperceptions, which I hope that we helped kind of debunk today. Marta, with your help, I think we did do our part today, at least.

Marta Belcher, thank you so much for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block. It was a pleasure having you.

Belcher: Angie, thank you so much for having me. This was great

Lau: And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode. I'm Angie Lau. Editor-in-Chief of Forkast.News. Until the next time.

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