National Digital Currencies Raise New Risks of Grand Corruption

In 2017, you may have heard of this thing called blockchain. The technology, which works by creating a decentralized, encrypted, and independently verifiable ledger of transactions distributed over a network of computer systems, has allowed innovations in the design of secure systems for recording votes, registering land ownership, and confirming digital identity. The most famous application of the blockchain, however, has been the creation of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple. Many private individuals consider these currencies to be the way of the future, and the death knell of the central banker: universal, transparent, and valued according to mathematical laws rather than political preferences, cryptocurrencies—according to their proponents—will bring with them immeasurable benefits, among them making the fight against corruption easier by allowing all interested parties to “see the entirety of any transaction instantly and accurately.”

But private citizens aren’t the only ones who have heard of the blockchain: the same central bankers who are meant to be rendered irrelevant by the advent of cryptocurrencies have also taken notice. Several governments, including those of Israel, Russia, China, Estonia, Sweden, and Venezuela, have announced plans to create their own national digital currencies (NDCs) based on blockchain technology. While there are several sound economic reasons for introducing an NDC, governments frequently cite the same anticorruption benefits mentioned above.

However, there are crucial differences between NDCs and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Rather than open architectures enabling full financial transparency, most NDCs currently plan to use some form of centralized ledger, giving government authorities (and only them) the ability to see and police transactions. While such centralized transparency will give honest governments a much-needed boost in the fight against corruption, it will also give oppressive and kleptocratic regimes another tool with which to steal from and oppress their populations. Continue reading

How to Crack Down on Cryptocurrencies

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are electronic currencies that rely on a technological innovation called a “blockchain”—essentially, a complete transaction record, or “ledger,” stored across a network of computers rather than on a single site. Because of the transparency and alleged incorruptibility of the blockchain ledger, many anticorruption advocates have welcomed the possibility that blockchain technology might be an effective technology to combat corruption in a variety of ways, from ensuring transparency and accuracy in land records to helping to fight money laundering. Whether that optimism is justified remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the most popular application of blockchain to date—Bitcoin—is proving to be a major problem for the fight against corruption, money laundering, and a whole range of other black-market transactions.

Bitcoin is an unregulated currency and is fundamentally difficult to track. Bitcoin allows for the transmission of large amounts of money without the need to go through the traditional, and heavily regulated, financial service providers. Unlike cash, which is also difficult to trace, bitcoins are easy to hide, as the information necessary to stash hundreds of millions of dollars can be kept on a small USB thumb drive. And despite the vaunted transparency and incorruptibility of the Bitcoin “ledger,” which does indeed record all Bitcoin transactions, there is no easy way to establish the real-world identities of Bitcoin users. Nor is there any easy way to generate a record of individuals’ bitcoin holdings, which would have to be reconstructed from hundreds of thousands of transactions. Laundering money with bitcoins is further facilitated through the use “mixing” technologies that pool bitcoins and forward them onward to other accounts, thwarting the transparent blockchain.

Government efforts to address these problems have so far fallen short. China has begun to crack down on domestic Bitcoin exchanges, and some countries such as Bolivia have outright outlawed the use of Bitcoin. But these efforts have largely failed because the storage and exchange of bitcoins requires so little information; you can send bitcoins using protocols as simple as email or text message. Many governments have financial disclosure laws that require public officials to declare all their assets, including bitcoins. And sometimes officials do: three Ukrainian ministers recently disclosed, pursuant to Ukraine’s new asset declaration law, holdings of a combined US$45 million worth of bitcoins. But if corrupt government officials chose to violate the law by failing to disclose their Bitcoin holdings, it would be all too easy for them to do so without getting caught. Governments could also crack down on the services that make bitcoins easier to use—the digital exchanges and apps—but all this would likely do is cause the providers of those electronic services to shift their operations to other jurisdictions, as has happened with digital torrenting sites (which facilitate the pirating of digital content) after the US cracked down.

There is, however, an alternative regulatory strategy that holds more promise:  Continue reading

The Road Ahead in Anti-Money-Laundering (AML): Can Blockchain Technology Turn the Tide?

One of the most exciting developments in financial and information technology in the past decade is the emergence of so-called blockchain technology. A blockchain is a database of information distributed over a network of computers rather than located on a single or multiple servers. The first and most famous practical application of blockchain technology is the electronic currency Bitcoin. Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies using blockchain technologies offer users the equivalent of anonymous cash transactions, and have been linked to illicit transactions in drugs, weapons, and prostitution as they. It is therefore no wonder then that blockchain technology is sometimes viewed as a problem, or at least a challenge, for those interested in fighting financial crime and corruption.

But blockchain technologies have other uses, many of which could in fact aid in the fight against these crimes. In an earlier post on this blog, Jeanne Jeong discussed how blockchain technology could be used managing land records. Another use for blockchain that has occasionally been mentioned (see here and here), but not yet sufficiently pursued, is anti-money-laundering (AML). Currently, banks spend about US$10 billion per year on AML measures, yet money laundering continues to take place on a vast scale. The goal of laundering money is to “wash” illegally obtained money (e.g. through corruption) into “clean” money, making the origins of the money untraceable. Blockchain technologies have five features that could make AML efforts both more effective and less costly:

Continue reading

Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Land Reform: Can an “Incorruptible” Technology Cure Corruption?

Since its inception in 2009, Bitcoin—a digital currency secured by encryption—has attracted attention, interest, and controversy. Less attention (at least until recently) has been paid to other applications of the underlying technology, “blockchain,” that makes Bitcoin possible. And while the anonymity associated with Bitcoin is, if anything, often associated with illicit transactions in the “dark web,” other applications of the blockchain technology might be used to enhance transparency and promote integrity. Some of the early proposals along these lines are indeed encouraging; at the same time, blockchain is not a technological panacea, and recognizing its limitations can identify areas that may require particular attention in anticorruption efforts.

First, a bit more (non-technical) information on the technology. Blockchain functions as an online, public digital ledger. In the Bitcoin context, the technology makes it possible to track and record Bitcoin transactions in the ledger and distribute that information in real-time to all computers connected to the Bitcoin network. Because of this distribution, the ledger is updated independent of any central authority. Moreover, because each chronological “block” in the chain contains both unique information about each transaction and also a unique identifier of the previous block, which is then distributed to all computers on the network, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to tamper with or alter the transaction records.

While the blockchain technology made Bitcoin possible, its public and tamper-proof data storage function could assist with efforts to promote transparency and fight corruption. For example, in the context of land reform, Austin-based start-up Factom has reached an agreement with the Honduran government to transfer its land registry onto a blockchain-enforced digital database. The objective is to create a reliable land title-keeping system in a country where, as USAID notes, “only 14% of Hondurans legally occupy properties and, of the properties held legally, only 30% are registered.” In addition to a lack of registration, government officials currently can alter titles to those properties that are registered, allocating properties to themselves (or to others in exchange for bribes). Moreover, citizens often lack access to records, which may provide conflicting information, and are thus unable to defend themselves against infringement of property, use, or mineral rights. By recording land title in an immutable public registry (relying, according to reports, on the Bitcoin blockchain’s data-embedding function), the partnership between Factom and the Honduran government seeks to secure for the public a clear, trustworthy record of ownership in order to improve protection of land rights, and to incentivize registration.

This seems like a worthwhile initiative, and one that transparency and anticorruption advocates should watch closely. At the same time, it’s worth noting several reasons we should be careful not to lose sight of important corruption challenges amidst the excitement surrounding the digitized ledger: Continue reading