Before turning to the known methods for tracking Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, I want to close out our review of law enforcement statements with a few more posts regarding prior testimony. Today I will look at the 2013 testimony by Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman.
First, like the testimony from FINCEN Director Calvery that we will look at tomorrow, AAG Raman notes that the U.S. authorities have been dealing with virtual currency issues since WebMoney and e-Gold in the 1990s, but that new cryptocurrencies present new threats:
The concept of virtual currencies is not new to the Department and, indeed, the Department has investigated and prosecuted the illicit use of virtual currencies since the late 1990s, when criminals first began using systems such as WebMoney and e-Gold to conduct their business. Over the last 15 years, however, virtual currencies have evolved and diversified significantly, challenging the Department to adapt our capabilities to deal with new systems and threats.
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“Virtual currency” is a medium of exchange circulated over a network, typically the Internet, which is not backed by a government. These systems can be both centralized and decentralized.
Early centralized models, where the currency is controlled by a single private entity, have expanded and now encompass a wide range of business concepts. Some centralized virtual currencies take the form of digital precious metals, such as e-Gold and Pecunix, where users exchange digital currency units ostensibly backed by gold bullion or other precious metals. Others exist within popular online games or virtual worlds, such as Farmville, Second Life, or World of Warcraft. Still others are online payment systems such as WebMoney and Liberty Reserve, which are available generally outside of specific online communities and denominate users’ accounts in virtual currency rather than U.S. Dollars, Euros, or some other national currency. Decentralized systems such as Bitcoin, which have no centralized administrating authority and instead operate as peer-to-peer transaction networks, entered the scene relatively recently but are growing rapidly. A network of sites and services, including exchangers who buy and sell virtual currencies in exchange for national currencies or other mediums of value, have developed around virtual currency systems, as well.
He emphasized the use of Tor to conceal transactions:
And, indeed, some of the criminal activity occurs through online black markets, many of which operate as Tor hidden services. Tor hidden services are sites accessible only through Tor, an anonymizing network that masks users’ Internet traffic by routing it through a series of volunteer servers, called “nodes,” across the globe. Online black markets capitalize on Tor’s anonymizing features to offer a wide selection of illicit goods and services, ranging from pornographic images of children to dangerous narcotics to stolen credit card information.
AAG Raman emphasized the Government’s view that money exchanges (like Coinbase, Gemini, etc.) are bound by existing Government regulations on financial services companies. This provides a hook for prosecuting them even if they cannot be linked to money laundering or other illegal activity:
The Department relies on money services business, money transmission, and anti-money laundering statutes to curtail this sort of unlawful activity. Many virtual currency systems, exchangers, and related services operate as money transmitters, which are part of a larger class of institutions called money services businesses. Money transmitters are required under 31 U.S.C. § 5330 to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Most states also require money transmitters to obtain a state license in order to conduct business in the state. Any money transmitter that fails to register with FinCEN or to obtain the requisite state licensing may be subject to criminal prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1960. Additionally, the general money laundering and spending statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, cover financial transactions involving virtual currencies. Finally, where virtual currencies are used in furtherance of underlying criminal activity, the Department can rely on traditional criminal statutes proscribing that activity, such as narcotics, cybercrime, child exploitation, and firearms laws.
AAG Raman also correctly emphasized the difficulties in attacking Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies due to the lack of a central authority:
Among the most significant challenges the Department faces in dealing with virtual currency is the difficulty in obtaining customer records. Because decentralized systems lack any sort of administering authority to collect user information or receive legal process, investigators must rely on information collected by other sources, such as exchangers. Even if the target used a centralized system or exchanger, however, accurate customer records may still be difficult to obtain, or may not exist at all. . . .
A final challenge arises from the link between virtual currency and encryption. Decentralized virtual currencies typically rely on an encryption algorithm, rather than a central authority, to administer the currency. These encryption-based currencies, also known as cryptocurrencies, lack a central administering authority that might otherwise possess valuable evidence. In addition, users of these currencies often encrypt their digital wallets, complicating our efforts to seize and forfeit criminal proceeds.