Bitcoin is a tool for terrorists and money launderers. At least that’s what your elected officials believe. When western leaders are pressed for their thoughts on cryptocurrency, that’s invariably the first sound bite to leave their lips, followed, occasionally, by a begrudging acknowledgement that “the underlying blockchain technology has potential”. But as the case of the $400 million of NEM stolen from Coincheck last week shows, laundering huge amounts of cryptocurrency is surprisingly hard. Laundering fiat currency, on the other hand, is extremely easy when you know how.
Coincheck, NEM and the Curse of the Tainted Crypto
After successfully extracting over $400 million of NEM from Coincheck’s hot wallet last week the hackers must have been ecstatic. In a single transaction they had pulled off the biggest digital heist of all time. Those smug grins swiftly gave way to frowns however as the thieves pondered the best way to offload their ill-gotten gains.
In the real world, there is no blockchain to monitor the movement of U.S. dollars in real-time. Laundering cash in small amounts is as easy as walking into a casino, and in larger amounts easier still if you have a cash-based business for that express purpose. But on the web, the blockchain sees and records everything, making it easy for observers to monitor the movement of stolen funds as they are disbursed. In the last few days, the NEM hackers have started moving their haul, but are encountering major difficulties in finding an exchange that will accept it.
Blacklisted on the Blockchain
In the wake of the Coincheck hack, NEM elected not to issue a hard fork to isolate the stolen coins and render them worthless. Instead it began contacting exchanges with the wallet address the stolen currency was sitting in, seeking to have it blacklisted. With 33 exchanges accepting NEM deposits, the hackers shouldn’t be short of options in theory. However, only eight of these recorded NEM trading volume of over $1 million in the last 24 hours. Laundering the proceeds, even if the hackers are able to find an exchange that will take them, could take some time. NEM’s Jeff McDonald told Reuters: “[The hackers are] trying to spend them on multiple exchanges. We are contacting those exchanges”.
In an effort to avoid scrutiny, the hackers have begun breaking the coins down into 100 XEM batches (currently worth around $55) in new wallets. Dividing 500 million coins into 100-coin bundles – even if automated – is a laborious process. It’s likely that some of the stolen NEM will enter circulation one way or another, but the chances of even 1% of the proceeds being laundered in such a manner seem remote. “I would assume that they are going to get away with some of the money,” conceded McDonald.
Laundering Crypto is Hard
Cryptocurrency is not the money launderer’s paradise it’s portrayed to be. Last week it was the turn of British Prime Minister Theresa May to break her silence on cryptocurrencies, predictably venturing that closer scrutiny was required “precisely because of the way they are used, particularly by criminals”. When Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary gave his first comments on bitcoin back in November, it was to echo similar sentiments, saying:
The first issue is to make sure people can’t use bitcoin for illicit activities. So we want to make sure that you don’t have the dark web funded in bitcoins and that’s something that is a concern of ours today. So, if you’re a bitcoin dealer in the United States, you have the same know-your-customer requirements and BSA requirements.
When political leaders assert that cryptocurrency must be regulated due to money laundering concerns, what they really mean is “We’re largely powerless to prevent fiat currency laundering so we’re going to focus our efforts on cryptocurrency instead”. Due to the nature of public blockchains and the need to cash out into fiat, cryptocurrency is easier to monitor. All the noise about “anonymity” and criminals “hiding on the deep web” is just that. In reality, laundering red hot cryptocurrency, unless it’s a privacy coin like monero, is fiendishly tricky.
A recent report tracking the circulation of funds within the bitcoin economy from 2013 to 2016 concluded that less than 1% of bitcoin transactions stemmed from coins of illicit origin. In comparison, it is estimated that between 2% and 5% of global GDP – or $800 billion to $2 trillion – in U.S. dollars is laundered annually. Not only is cryptocurrency harder to launder at scale, but its prevalence is significantly lower than fiat currency. Just don’t expect your government to tell you that.