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