Transparency for the Whales, Privacy for the Plebs

By July 15, 2023 In Bitcoin, Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies

Depending on your perspective, this week brought a double dose of black pills for those who held out hope of salvaging cryptocurrency users’ privacy – or white pills for those seeking greater transparency for a $1 trillion market.

First, Arkham Intelligence, a on-chain data analytics provider, opened an intel bounty marketplace with the express purpose of unmasking the owners of crypto wallets.

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“Deanonymization is destiny,” the company declared in a “white paper” (really a marketing brochure, printed in the same academic-looking font and layout as Satoshi Nakamoto’s original proposal for anonymous digital cash). “Eventually, everyone’s blockchain identity will be linked to their real-world identity.” (Emphasis mine.)


Bitcoin whitepaper and Arkham Research's documentation for new data marketplace side by side. Credit: Library of Congress/Interim Archives/Getty ImagesNOWHERE TO HIDE? “Eventually, everyone’s blockchain identity will be linked to their real-world identity,” Arkham Intelligence predicts. (Library of Congress/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

Descriptively and directionally, Arkham may be correct – but its project of accelerating that outcome understandably rubbed privacy advocates the wrong way. The subsequent revelation that Arkham had inadvertently leaked its customers’ personal data offered comic relief.

Blockchains are one kind of fishbowl; regulated exchanges are another. The Arkham kerfuffle was followed by an illuminating report about asset management giant BlackRock’s proposed spot bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) from CoinDesk’s Ian Allison. He learned of an information-sharing agreement between BlackRock’s partners, the Nasdaq (which plans to list the ETF’s shares) and crypto exchange Coinbase. The arrangement would go further than surveillance-sharing agreements (SSAs) in previous bitcoin ETF applications. Rather than Coinbase just pushing trade data to regulators, to BlackRock and to the Nasdaq, the latter parties would be allowed to pull data from the crypto exchange, “up to and including personally identifiable information (PII), such as the customer’s name and address.”

To be fair, there’s a reason the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) asks ETF applicants to obtain SSAs with regulated markets for the underlying assets, and it’s not some covert ambition to become another NSA. The regulator aims to deter market manipulation.

Arkham’s intel exchange might serve a similarly salubrious purpose. “Transparency about what market players are doing is good for everyday traders and investors and helps to level the playing field,” the company noted in an FAQ. “This kind of widely available market transparency is missing in TradFi, which privileges bigger, well-resourced players at the expense of everyone else.”

Read more: Arkham Intelligence Traces Transactions on the Blockchain

So there’s a conceivable timeline where Arkham’s on-chain intel marketplace promotes transparency for the powerful without (further) eroding privacy for the weak, to borrow a formulation from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. There’s no alpha in doxxing plebs, after all; degens just want to know what the whales are up to. CoinDesk, it should be noted, has a data and tokens team dedicated analyzing on-chain trends to benefit the trader audience.

All this is well and good, as long as you think of cryptocurrency strictly as a trading asset, and not as, you know, a currency. Indeed, trading – put more bluntly, speculation – has historically been crypto’s main use case.

[Y]ou don’t need to ‘breach’ a cryptocurrency network to see where the money is moving – it’s all out there in the open.

The danger is that blockchain identity bounties could be weaponized against the weak.

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Two years ago, a data breach at a crowdfunding website exposed the identities of donors to a legal defense fund for a defendant who one side of the culture war had already found guilty without a trial. An international newspaper saw fit to amplify the names of several “public officials” who donated, including a police sergeant who gave a whole $25 and a fire department paramedic who kicked in all of $10. Not to be outdone, a local television reporter contacted the paramedic’s employer and reported, with a whiff of incredulous disappointment, that the city had not placed this obscure individual, who was not accused of breaking any laws, on administrative leave. (The defendant, for the record, was acquitted by a jury of his peers.)

Unlike crowdfunding websites, decentralized networks can’t be pressured into blocking transfers to politically disfavored recipients. There’s no “CEO of Bitcoin.” But you don’t need to “breach” a cryptocurrency network to see where the money is moving – it’s all out there in the open. Pseudonymous blockchain addresses are the only fig leaf available to participants.

Take those away for everyone, not just the high rollers, and you won’t just give retail traders a leg up; you’ll also arm the internet’s stalkers, sadists and scolds with a new set of “receipts.”

Flashback: Let’s Be Privacy Scolds (2020)

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The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.

Marc Hochstein

Marc Hochstein is the executive editor of Consensus, CoinDesk’s flagship event. He holds BTC above CoinDesk’s disclosure threshold of $1K and de minimis amounts of other digital assets (details on profile page).

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