Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Human Rights Foundation Funds Bitcoin Privacy Tools Despite ‘Coin Mixing’ Legal Stigma

By Leigh Cuen
Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On one hand, the bitcoin industry has matured to include traditional brokerages and institutional traders. On the other, bitcoin privacy tech is still shrouded in a legal gray zone.

Critics like Reckless VR founder Udi Wertheimer and Jon Matonis of Cypherpunk Holdings, the latter of which invested in both the privacy-oriented Samourai Wallet and Wasabi-maker zkSNACKs, say blockchain analytics firms are overestimating the amount of illicit transactions when they flag mixed bitcoin.

“Exchanges, banks and regulators are being sold a false narrative if they believe that this [analytics] technology provides reliable, or more importantly, actionable results,” Matonis said. “It is purely a dangerous game of probabilities and false positives, disingenuously overstated to peddle more forensic services.”

HRF’s Gladstein recently took Elliptic, another blockchain analytics firm, to task for its “surveillance” work. “The tools you’re building regardless of your intentions will be used for policing bitcoin,” Gladstein said during a panel with Elliptic’s Tom Robinson at an event this month. “At the end of the day what you’re doing is warrantless surveillance against people in other countries.”

For his part, Matonis’s investment thesis revolves around the belief the legal community will adopt compliance norms that don’t restrict or criminalize privacy-tech like mixers.

“The concern around mixing technology, or coin hygiene, stems from the flawed thinking that cryptocurrency transactions are identical to bank transfers using fiat currency,” Matonis said. “This is a grand societal battle that must be won by privacy advocates, not because it is a cute feature or a principled position, but because it is an existential economic necessity. A peer-to-peer value transfer system fails without underlying coin privacy at its core, because the entire system would lack fungibility if all coins were not treated equally the way paper cash is today.”

This is why some bitcoiners continue to work on privacy tech, regardless of exchange policies and other hurdles.

Continued growth

Meanwhile, CoinJoin usage continues to increase, with roughly 13,500 new Wasabi Wallet downloads this year.

So far in June, more than 10,000 fresh bitcoin were used in Wasabi CoinJoin transactions for the first time, the highest record since the all-time peak in August 2019 according to the Wasabi team.

Overall, usage has more than tripled since May 2019, when roughly 9,764 total bitcoin were used in Wasabi’s CoinJoin transactions, compared to 35,697 total bitcoin used in May 2020, they said.

And that’s not even to mention the few thousand bitcoin sent using other CoinJoin tools since the coronavirus began, including Samourai Wallet and JoinMarket. Generally speaking, usage appears to be up across the sector.

Matonis said as long as companies and public individuals focus on non-custodial, open source software, he believes privacy-tech projects will actually bear less compliance costs over time as the tools become normalized. For example, mixing protocols could become a “standard default feature” in bitcoin wallets.

“Both the bitcoin industry and law enforcement need to resist falling for the myth of blockchain forensics as perpetrated by the blockchain surveillance firms,” Matonis said of companies that routinely flag mixed coins as suspicious.

“Law enforcement methods will undoubtedly have to evolve beyond simply using money as an identity tracking device or simply relying on metadata through non-targeted driftnet surveillance,” he added. “This means employing real and sometimes cumbersome police work that doesn’t violate the rights of any individuals.”