A new project funded by the European Commission, dubbed TITANIUM ((Tools for the Investigation of Transactions in Underground Markets), wants to to “curtail criminals and attackers from using blockchain technology to avoid law detection.” They add “while at the same time respecting the privacy rights of legitimate users,” which is difficult to take seriously.
The three years, €5 million project is led by the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), with the participation of other 14 European partners. Besides university and technology companies, the project team notably includes Interpol and national police departments. See also the AIT press release (in German).
The Euroepan Commission’s TITANIUM page informs us that the project will develop “novel methods and technical solutions for investigating and mitigating illegitimate activities (relating to either crime or terrorism) involving virtual currencies and/or underground market transactions.”
“Criminal and terrorist activities related to virtual currencies and darknet markets evolve quickly and vary in technical sophistication, resilience and intended targets,” said AIT research scientist and project coordinator Ross King. “The consortium will analyse legal and ethical requirements and define guidelines for storing and processing data, information, and knowledge involved in criminal investigations without compromising citizen privacy.”
According to King, there’s a need for efficient and effective forensics tools enabling the reasonable (whatever that means) use of different types of data from different sources including virtual currency ledgers, online forums, peer-to-peer networks of underground markets, and seized devices.
This seems part of a general push to monitor everyone’s online life. On June 4, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called for “international agreements to regulate cyberspace” and to deny violent extremists “safe spaces” online. Bitcoin Mining Pro notes that the crackdown “would not just apply to bitcoin, but all ‘virtual currencies,’ and would effectively ban anonymous cryptocurrency, at least in the EU. The proposed directive is intended to combat money laundering and terrorism, despite scant evidence that cryptocurrencies play a prominent role in either.”
There’s nothing new here: there have been calls to regulate cyberspace since the authorities noticed (after everyone else) its existence. The arguments are always the same: online communications, privacy tools, and now virtual currencies, can be used by criminals and terrorists to do bad things.
But, despite King’s pious assurance that citizen privacy will not be compromised, citizen privacy seems the only thing that can, and will, be compromised by these initiatives. Face the facts: Bitcoin and Tor are for the little people like you and I. Terrorists and criminals have, and always had, other means to move big money and secret communications around without anyone noticing. They don’t need to work around the traditional financial system, because they have perfectly good means to work within.
Of course the bad guys use virtual currencies too, but if virtual currencies were to disappear the bad guys would just switch back to one of the many proven alternatives they have. On the other hand we, the little people, would lose our little means to do our little things with some privacy and without hassles.
The European Commission’s TITANIUM would be strong and unforgiving against the little guys, but weak against the bad guys with money. Well, nothing new here either.
In general, I prefer to live in a world where there is the possibility of bad things happening occasionally, than in a world where everyone is under continuous 24/7 surveillance and harassment.
However, I am not too worried. The European Commission and the institutions that typically get large public contracts are not known for disruptive creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, but the hackers that develop next-generation decentralized internet technology and blockchain systems are. I have no doubt that the hackers will, once again, outsmart the 9-to-5 workers and find ways to melt TITANIUM.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are the author’s own.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons.