On Jan. 17, Singapore-based cryptocurrency exchange Huobi, one of the largest players on the market, relaunched as a fully licensed platform in Japan after merging with the BitTrade exchange.

Branching out to Japan, where compliance is valued and many regulatory measures are imposed for crypto players by domestic regulators, is a complex process. Here’s how Huobi entered the market, and which firms might soon follow suit.

Specifics of the Japanese market and the FSA’s role in it

Japan is one of the world’s largest markets for cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin (BTC) and altcoins can be used as a legally accepted means of payment there, although they are not considered “legal tender.” Being closely overseen by the national financial regulator, the Financial Services Agency (FSA), the Japanese crypto market is also one of the most compliant and regulation-oriented.

Since the amendment of Japan’s Payment Services Act in April 2017, all crypto exchanges in the country are required to register with the FSA. Counting Huobi’s recent merger with BitTrade, the pool of exchanges cleared to serve the Japanese market currently consists of 17 platforms: Money Partners, Liquid (previously known as Quoine), Bitflyer, BitBank, SBI Virtual Currencies, GMO Coin, Btcbox, Bitpoint, Fisco Virtual Currency, Zaif, Tokyo Bitcoin Exchange, Bit Arg Exchange Tokyo, FTT Corporation, Xtheta Corporation, Huobi and Coincheck.

The FSA is known to have a tight grip on local exchanges, firmly reacting to security breaches after a number of high-profile local crypto exchange incidents, namely last year’s bizzare $532 million Coincheck hack and the infamous collapse of Tokyo-based Mt. Gox. The FSA also conducts on-site inspections of exchanges that have their registration pending and occasionally asks exchanges to submit their risk management system reports in the wake of security breaches.

Biggest Exchanges Hacks



For instance, in March 2018, following the Coincheck hack, the watchdog sent“punishment notices” to as many as seven crypto exchanges and temporarily froze the activities of two more after a round of inspections. Business improvement orders were sent for a lack of “the proper and required internal control systems,” with Coincheck being specifically cited as missing a framework for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Shortly after the regulator’s move, two local exchanges — Mr. Exchange and Tokyo GateWay — decided to close up shop.

As a result of the FSA’s thorough supervision, some players have decided to quit the Japanese market. Binance, one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges that had opened an office in the country, turned to Malta — the famously crypto-friendly country — after the regulator had issued a warning in March 2018. Similarly, around the same time, crypto exchange Kraken also decided to end its services in Japan, although citing the rising costs of doing business there as the primary reason for relocation. Japanese social messaging app Line has also decided to exclude the domestic market prior to the launch of its cryptocurrency exchange, citing local regulatory difficulties.

In May of last year, the FSA rolled out further regulatory stipulations for domestic crypto exchanges, intensifying its efforts to prevent another major hack. Exchanges were required to monitor customer accounts multiple times per day for suspicious fluctuations and must comply with stricter Anti-Money Laundering (AML) measures, which specifically demand Know Your  Customer (KYC) checks, such as ID verification. There have also been reports regarding the FSA potentially prohibiting the trading of anonymity-oriented altcoins — such as Dash (DASH) and Monero (XMR) — in the future.

In July, the agency underwent a major redo aimed at improving its presence in fintech-related fields, including cryptocurrencies. Thus, the Strategy Development and Management Bureau replaced the Inspection Bureau to develop a financial strategy policy and handle issues addressing the digital currencies market, fintech and money laundering.

The Policy and Markets Bureau, in turn, succeeded the Planning and Coordination Bureau, and was tasked with developing a legal framework that addresses the rapid growth of the fintech sector.

In August 2018, Toshihide Endo, the commissioner of the FSA, said that his agency wants the cryptocurrency industry to “grow under appropriate regulation.” The official added:

“We have no intention to curb [the crypto industry] excessively. We would like to see it grow under appropriate regulation.”

In response to regulatory pressures, a self-regulatory body named the Japan Virtual Currency Exchange Association (JVCEA) has emerged, comprised of the local exchanges. In October 2018, Japan’s financial regulator formally grantedself-regulatory status to the JVCEA to oversee the crypto sector. Therefore, the JVCEA might have a better say when it comes to the industry standards in the future. Specifically, the self-regulatory outfit is now expected to develop AML policies for crypto exchanges.

Huobi’s way of getting the FSA clearance — and similar attempts from the past

Founded in China in 2013, Huobi Group has been headquartered in Singaporesince Beijing’s crackdown on domestic crypto-fiat exchanges in September 2017. As part of its ongoing overseas expansion efforts, the platform has recently rebranded its United States-based strategic partner trading platform HBUS to the better recognized the Huobi name. Now, the platform — currently the world’s sixth largest by daily traded volume — has expanded to the Japanese market. Huobi’s arrival follows the news about Coincheck receiving full permission from the FSA to continue operating in the country after the above mentioned security breach.

Huobi’s press release emphasizes its security precaution, outlining that Huobi Japan “features specialized distributed architecture, a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack countermeasures system, and A+ ranked SSL certification (the highest available).”

According to the official announcement, Huobi Japan supports the trading of Bitcoin, Ethereum (ETH), Bitcoin Cash (BCH), Litecoin (LTC), Ripple (XRP) and Monacoin (MONA).

Importantly, Huobi didn’t receive the FSA license from scratch, going through a different route instead. Although Japan’s Payment Services Act allows foreign operators to register in the country as “virtual currency exchange service providers,” Huobi has relaunched as a fully licensed platform in Japan after acquiring a majority stake in BitTrade last September. At the time, BitTrade was one of only 16 crypto exchanges in the country to have secured a license from the FSA.

However, Huobi’s market expansion through acquisition of a pre-approved FSA platform is not an entirely new move: In June 2018, BitTrade became Japan’s first FSA-licensed platform to be entirely purchased by an international investor, the Singaporean multi-millionaire and entrepreneur Eric Cheng. The investor also acquired BitTrade’s affiliate company at the time, FX Trade Financial Co., Ltd — one of Japan’s leading forex trading platforms. Following the Huobi deal, FX Trade Financial kept 25 percent of BitTrade’s shares.

BitTrade Acquisition Breakdown

More exchanges to receive the FSA’s blessing: Coinbase, Yahoo and others

Other players are only preparing to enter the market, still waiting to get clearance from the FSA. As Cointelegraph Japan reported on Jan. 12, seven applications will be either approved or rejected by the FSA within six months. The article also revealed the FSA’s complex and lengthy routine of reviewing crypto exchanges that have applied for a license.

Thus, the FSA conducts a procedure that takes almost six months from the time of application — which includes the submission of answers to over 400 questions — to final decision.

After receiving the answers, the FSA communicates with the company to verify its business plan, governance, cybersecurity and management system, along with its AML and counter-terrorist financing measures. In that phase of the review — which reportedly takes about four months — the agency’s officers personally double-check the company’s practices in person. After that, the company officially submits their application to the FSA. The agency then finally reviews the documents and decides whether or not to grant the license.

The financial regulator stated that there are 21 companies taking part in the first part of the review as of January, while seven are already in the decision phase. Therefore, up to seven companies could be granted a new license by the summer. In total, the FSA has reportedly received around 190 cryptocurrency exchange license applications.

Perhaps the most major of the pending candidates is San Francisco-based Coinbase, which revealed its plans to enter the Japanese crypto market in June 2018. Being a compliance-oriented company, Coinbase has made positive remarks about Japan’s crypto regulatory climate in the past, saying that the FSA’s intense focus on security is “good for us.” Given that the U.S. exchange originally planned to establish its operation in Japan “within the year,” the FSA is likely to approve or decline its application at some point in the next few months.

Moreover, the Japanese arm of the internet giant Yahoo will reportedly open their own crypto exchange “in April 2019 or later,” through buying 40 percent of BitARG Exchange Tokyo. Other potential players to open a crypto exchange in Japan include Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, the largest domestic bank. In January 2018, South Korean newspaper KBS reported the financial group’s plans — however, there has been no update since.

Also, Money Forward, the company behind a popular financial management application that has over 7 million users in Japan, recently shared details regarding the upcoming launch of its cryptocurrency exchange. Thus, Money Forward is reportedly planning to open their yet-to-be-named platform between January and March 2019, although it depends on how the registration with the FSA will go.

Licensed Exchanges in Japan

This post credited to Cointelegraph. Image source: Cointelegraph

Japanese crypto exchange Coincheck, which suffered a $530 million hack in January of last year, is now a licensed entity.

Monex Group, the Japan-based online brokerage firm that acquired Coincheck for $33.5 million following the cyberattack, announced Friday that the exchange is now registered with the Kanto Financial Bureau, under the country’s Payment Service Act, effective immediately.

The license was approved by the country’s Financial Services Agency (FSA), on the basis of Coincheck’s improved risk management and governance systems with “concrete internal controls and customer protection in mind,” Monex said.

Following the massive hack of around 500 million NEM tokens in January 2018, the FSA had orderedCoincheck to strengthen its security systems and submit a business management improvement plan to the authority. At the time, the exchange was not registered with the regulator.

The breach also forced Coincheck to suspend its services for some months. Since then, the exchange has been phasing back in its operations. By November 2018, it had reinstated services for all listed cryptos on its platform.

Now with the license in place, Coincheck joins the growing list of regulated crypto exchanges in the country, including financial services giant SBI Holdings, which operates a registered platform called VCTRADE. U.S.-based exchange unicorn Coinbase has previously said it expects to become licensed in Japan in 2019.

All crypto exchanges in Japan came under anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your-customer (KYC) rules in April of 2017 when the country’s legislature passed the Payment Service Act and recognized bitcoin as a legal method of payment.

Over 160 firms are planning to apply for the crypto exchange license, the FSA said back in September, adding that it is looking to increase its staffing levels to speed up the review process.

This post credited to Coindesk. Tokyo image via Shutterstock

Mizuho Bank, Japan’s second largest financial institution, is readying the infrastructure for a stablecoin launch in March 2019, as reported by Asia Nikkei Review. The coin is aimed at increasing low-cost cross-border transfers and remittances.

Moving towards Crypto-Finance

Mizuho plans to promote cashless payments in Japan by deploying its offering across retail stores for feeless-transactions, unlike traditional credit cards. In addition, all remittances will be conducted via the unnamed coin for zero charges. The firm is reportedly in discussion with over 60 regional banks to support liquidity for the stablecoin.

Initially termed the “J-Coin” project, the Mizuho effort was started in 2017 by group chairman Yasuhiro Sato in partnership with two Japanese “megabanks,” regional banks, and Japan Post Bank. If all goes according to plan, the project shall mark the first instance of a stablecoin used by financial corporations, banks, and retail shops.

Use of the price-stable cryptocurrency is envisioned to mirror cashless payment systems in China, which are among the most sophisticated in the world and harbored on the likes of AliPay and WePay. Currently, Japan remains a cash-based economy but looks to augment cashless transfers ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The country has even introduced tax breaks and subsidies to encourage businesses to offer online payment alternatives at retail stores.

“Megabanks” in Japan both Agree and Differ

Payments will be possible via a simple QR code placed at vendor outlets and accessible through a dedicated phone application that supports the Mizuho stablecoin. The coin’s value will be pegged on a 1-to-1 basis with the Japanese Yen, which currently trades at JPY 110.31 against the U.S. dollar.

Meanwhile, Japan’s “megabanks” are beginning to get actively involved in cryptocurrency projects. Apart from Mizuho, the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group launched its stablecoin, the MUFG coin, in April 2018, and plans a nationwide rollout by 2020

As per reports, banks are also considering installing unified QR codes in retail outlets to bolster adoption, meaning a one-size-fits-all approach to lower the barriers for entry for shop owners. However, while MUFG agrees to the architecture, it differs both in the technical and fundamental aspects—mainly that of aligning with a competitor and combining its stablecoin with Mizuho’s coin.

This post credited to cryptoslate Image source: Cryptoslate

The Japanese Financial Services Agency (FSA) is considering placing cryptocurrencies into a new legal category called “crypto-assets,” Cointelegraph Japan reported Dec. 15.

By classifying cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC) this way, the government reportedly “hopes that traders will no longer purchase them believing that they are legal tender recognized by the government.”

On Friday, an FSA advisory panel filed a report requesting the term “virtual currency” be changed since, according to the panel, it could confuse people into believing the asset is legal tender in the country.

As Cointelegraph reported recently, Japan’s FSA is set to introduce new initial coin offering (ICO) regulations to protect investors from fraud. Business operators conducting ICOs will reportedly be required to register with the FSA.

This month, news broke that there has been a significant wave of reports of suspicious crypto transactions to the Japanese police. The increase reportedly came after the implementation of a law in April obliging cryptocurrency exchange operators to report suspect cryptocurrency transactions to the police.

This post credited to cointelegraph Image source: Cointelegraph

The Japanese arm of computer giant Microsoft has partnered with nascent blockchain startup LayerX to “accelerate” uptake of the technology, Cointelegraph Japan reported Nov. 30.

LayerX, which formed in August as a joint venture from news curation app Gunosy and advisory service AnyPay, oversees blockchain integration for enterprise, including areas such as smart contracts and general consulting.

Using Microsoft’s Azure Blockchain-as-a-Service (BaaS) solution, the companies will seek to promote the technology further in the domestic economy.

“We will support the introduction process in its entirety, even down to technical support of finished implementations,” an accompanying press release stated, adding:

“Both companies will work toward realization of transformation of people’s lives and working practices by promoting the implementation of blockchain technology in various industries.”

Earlier this month, Microsoft released its cloud-based Azure blockchain development kit, which executives said would initially focus on three areas: “connecting interfaces, integrating data and systems, and deploying smart contracts and blockchain networks.”

The Japan move forms the latest in the country’s ever-increasing activity in both the blockchain and cryptocurrency sphere, with multiple entities involved in promoting the technology among consumers.

Two Japanese cryptocurrency exchangesCoincheck and Zaif, meanwhile continue to recover from hacks in January and September this year that saw losses totaling almost $600 million.

This post credited to cointelegraph Image source: Cointelegraph

The Financial Services Agency (FSA), Japan’s finance regulator, has formally approved a cryptocurrency exchange association as a self-regulatory industry body.

The FSA said in a notice on Wednesday that it has accredited the Japanese Virtual Currency Exchange Association (JVCEA) as a “certified fund settlement business association,” a status that will let the body set rules for the nation’s exchanges and take action over any violations.

While the group has not announced any rules yet, a recent report from Reuters said it may require member exchanges to hold separate bank deposits and government bonds, based on a draft obtained by the news agency. The move would be aimed to ensure exchanges have sufficient funds to compensate users in the event of a hack.

The association was created by 16 licensed crypto trading platforms in Japan in the wake of a $530 million hack on the Coincheck exchange early this year, and filed an application for approval with the FSA in August.

Recently, the Zaif crypto exchange, one of the 16 licensed platforms, was hacked for $60 million and subsequently had to sign itself over to another firm last month because it did not have enough reserves to refund users for their losses.

The association has previously made other proposals, such as imposing regular audits on crypto exchanges and limiting the amount of borrowing available to margin traders.

In a separate announcement, the FSA also noted it had seen an increasing number of companies expressing interest in applying for a cryptocurrency exchange license. As such, it has updated and released the documents it requires for firms seeking to be licensed.

Exchanges must now complete a 83-page Q&A form that includes details such as a platforms’ crypto reserves, offered trading pairs and their maximum leverage ratio in margin trading.

Based on the FSA document, the review process will also focus on security measures taken by exchanges – for instance, whether their platform is developed in-house or whether they use third-party agencies to manage customer outreach and marketing efforts.

The FSA also indicated that after reviewing written submissions it will also conduct on-site inspections at exchanges.

In September, the agency said it was planning to increase staffing levels next year for its cryptocurrency exchange license scheme, stating that over 160 firms were looking to submit applications at the time.

This post credited to coindesk Image via Shutterstock

Ten months ago, Ken Takahashi started a petition on Change.org to make XRP the official crypto of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. Today, it has over 5,200 signatures out of a needed 7,500.

Hitting milestones

Once created, the petition reached 500 signatures with relative speed, and jumped from 500 to 1,000 in less than 72 hours, according to an update by Takahashi, a resident of Japan, posted on the petition page. After that, it jumped to 1,500 in less than a day.

A unifying cryptocurrency for ease of use

Takahashi started this petition to try and solve the problem of so many international visitors flooding into a country that doesn’t use their currency, and having to have that currency exchanged. As with the Rio Olympics in 2016, people will flock to Tokyo from all over the world to witness, cover, and participate in the Olympic games. And all of those people are going to need to buy things. Takahashi writes:

“As tourists stream into the country, demand for the local currency skyrockets, causing long lines at currency exchanges, as seen at past events like Beijing 2008 and Rio de Janeiro 2016. Confusing exchange rates and language barriers further complicate the problem.”

He chose XRP because of the ease at which it facilitates cross-border transactions. Ripple Labs just launched its XRapid product commercially earlier in the week and hopes to provide a more efficient alternative to SWIFT, the current standard for international transactions.

Tests sending funds between the U.S. and Mexico showed wait times for XRP transfers can be minutes, and cost exponentially less than sending money across borders the conventional way. Takahashi contends that a single cryptocurrency, easily convertible into fiat, would ease congestion and friction for international Olympic visitors. Not to mention the fact that it could save them money on exchange fees. The more easily people can access their funds and convert them to local currency, the more easily they can spend it there.

Takahashi is aiming for 7,500 signatures on the petition before he sends it to the Olympic National Committee. Ripple Labs has also been tagged on the petition page.

This post credited to cryptoslate  Image source: Unsplash

As previously reported, the exchange suffered a security breach Sept. 14, resulting in total losses of cryptocurrencies worth 6.7 billion yen (around $59.7 million).

At the time, Zaif operator Tech Bureau Inc. indicated it would be working with Fisco Digital Asset Group to draft a joint support plan.

Today’s notice clarifies that the terms of the basic agreement between the two firms have been in formal negotiation as of Sept. 20., and initially stipulated that Fisco would provide “financial support of 5 billion yen, enter a capital alliance enabling acquisition of a majority of the Company’s shares and allow for a majority of directors and the dispatch of an auditor.”

Tech Bureau today states that some of the initial terms have now been changed in the two firms’ final agreement. The notice declares that both firms are primarily focused on pursuing “the business transfer method,” from the viewpoint of both avoiding risk for Fisco, as well as the urgency of implementing a decision “rapidly to protect customers.”

Tech Bureau affirms that an agreement has been successfully concluded to “transfer the business of cryptocurrency exchange Zaif to Fisco Cryptocurrency Exchange.”

As per the now “legally stipulated” procedures, Tech Bureau states it will hold a general meeting for shareholders on Nov. 19, with the date of the business transfer to Fisco set for Nov. 22.

Under the final terms, Fisco will reportedly assume customers’ rights to receiving a return of all deposited cryptocurrency, stating that “[c]ompensation for some Monacoin will be made in Japanese yen.”

The notice outlines that compensation for affected Monacoin holders will be made in Japanese yen, at a rate of 144.548 yen ($1.28) per Monacoin. Compromised holdings will be reportedly be compensated 60 percent in crypto (at the specified rate) and 40 percent in fiat currency.

Moreover, all Monacoin transactions on the Zaif platform will cease completely as of today, Oct. 10, at 5 p.m. Announcements are reportedly to be made at a later date regarding the resumption of transactions, as well as when compensation withdrawals for compromised Monacoin holdings will commence.

With regards to Bitcoin (BTC) and Bitcoin Cash (BCH) transactions, all buying and selling shall reportedly continue “as normal” on the Zaif platform as of today, whereas deposit and withdrawal services are scheduled to resume after operations have been assumed by Fisco, with a precise date yet to be announced.

As recently reported, Japan’s Financial Services Agency (FSA) issued its third business improvement order to Tech Bureau at the end of September. The watchdog had already ordered the firm to make business improvements first in March, and subsequently in June this year.

This post credited to cointelegraph  Image source: Cointelegraph

Much noise has been made about the untraceable qualities of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin “can be used to buy merchandise anonymously” said early primers on crypto, it offers users the kind of financial privacy that was previously available only from a “Swiss bank account,” say more recent commentators. And given its ability to provide people with a layer of anonymity and privacy, it has been smeared by politicians, experts and mainstream journalists alike as a hiding place for almost any hacker, drug dealer, gang member, terrorist or despot you could possibly name (even if cash is still the preferred financial medium of such personae non gratae).

It’s therefore no wonder that, for several years, governments have been feverishly trying to trace Bitcoin’s circulation, as well as that of other digital currencies. And despite the popular reputation of most cryptocurrencies as anonymous, they’ve been aided in this pursuit by the fact that most cryptos are not anonymous, but rather pseudonymous. In other words, by linking transactions to fixed wallet addresses, and by keeping a public record of every single transaction ever made on their chains, most popular cryptocurrencies provide national governments with an almost perfect means of keeping tabs on our financial activity.

However, while many governments have begun capitalizing on this very convenient affordance by building systems that compile transaction data and scraped private info into a single database, most have only just begun moving in this direction. And more importantly, there are a number of privacy coins – Monero being the most prominent  – that don’t offer a public record linking transactions to wallets, while there are also mixing tools for making the transactions of non-privacy coins private. As such, there are still ways to remain anonymous in crypto for those who want to keep a low profile, despite the best efforts of governments in the USRussiaJapan, and elsewhere.

Japan and Russia

Japan and Russia

As the most recent example of government crypto monitoring, the Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) announced plans to implement a system that can reportedly “track” cryptocurrency transactions within Japan. While specific technical details are scarce, the software is being developed by an unnamed private company and will cost the NPA around $315,000 next year to run. In particular, its main function will be to trace transactions reported to it as ‘suspicious’, linking them together into a visualization that will, in theory, enable it to pinpoint the sources and destinations of illicit money.

For the most part, it will receive its reports of suspicious activity from Japanese crypto-exchanges, which ever since the May introduction (by the Financial Services Agency) of anti-money laundering (AML) legislation have been sending it intelligence on potentially illegal transactions and the accounts associated with them. Indeed, this reporting is precisely what makes a ‘transaction-tracking system’ possible, rather than the invention of some novel cryptographic technology capable of breaking through the pseudonymity/anonymity of most cryptocurrencies. Simply, exchanges are being legally required to follow strict know-your-customer (KYC) policies, which enable them to link real-world identities to addresses and to transactions recorded on public blockchains. And given that they’re supplying this info to the NPA, all the NPA will really be doing with their system is feeding such info into a database and creating visualizations of the flow of crypto.

What this means is that such a system isn’t likely to have much direct application to anyone who circumvents (regulated) exchanges when receiving and sending crypto. That said, even if certain users stay away from Japanese exchanges they could still be linked to illicit crypto if said crypto has passed through an exchange and already raised suspicions. Either way, another area to which the system isn’t likely to have much direct application are privacy-enabling coins such as MoneroZcash and Dash, since rather than attempting to track such coins the Japanese authorities have merely decided to ban exchanges from carrying them.

A similar story is currently emerging in Russia, where the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) has contracted for a system that will collate various sources of information regarding suspects in finance-related crimes. As reported by the BBC Russia service, the system will be used to create profiles for suspects, to which the authorities then add whatever relevant info they can gleam about him or her: phone numbers, bank card details, physical addresses, and crypto wallet addresses. Once again, the system hasn’t been designed specifically to compromise the cryptography of Bitcoin or any other crypto, but rather seeks to simply add wallet information – where available – to any other data Rosfinmonitoring has on a suspect.

By doing this, the Russian authorities clearly hope to prevent suspects from laundering any illicitly gained money via crypto, while they also assert that they intend to stop crypto being used directly for illegal purposes. “Because of their anonymity and the inability to trace them,” German Klimenko – an ex-advisor to Vladimir Putin on internet development (and head of the cryptocurrency group at the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) – told the BBC. “Cryptocurrency is used in grey areas, in the dark web, for buying weapons, drugs, or violent videos. Lawmakers of many countries are wary of this phenomenon: this was confirmed by the analysis that we conducted under orders from the president [Putin].”

While Russia hasn’t introduced regulations requiring exchanges to uphold strict AML and KYC policies, the State Duma is in the process of negotiating a digital assets bill that would do just that. And once this bill has passed, Russian authorities will – like their Japanese counterparts – have access to info on the identities of wallet holders. As a result, the Rosfinmonitoring service will be able to enter this information in the soon-to-be-launched system (coming at the end of 2018), which will enable it to link transactions, wallets, and identities together.

But because this system will be tapping into crypto-exchange records rather than novel ‘crypto-hacking’ technology, it’s likely that it won’t apply to all cryptocurrencies and all cryptocurrency users. Some experts even believe that it will have a largely counterproductive effect, forcing many cryptocurrencies and their users to become more untraceable.

“If you look at the entire volume of laundered funds, the share that is laundered through cryptocurrency is very small,” Anton Merkurov – an advisor with US-based the Free Russia Foundation – said. “Let’s say the turnover of the local exchange is about one billion rubles [around $14.7 million] a week. This, in fact, is not very much. Instead of catching the proverbial Colonel Zakharchenko [a former anti-corruption officer who was caught with around $140 million in bribe money in 2016], authorities are trying to find a microbe under a microscope in a drop of water. This should not be a priority. And most importantly, start pressing there and opposition will begin, you will think up real tools for laundering.”

The United States

The United States

While the systems being rolled out by Japan and Russia largely depend on cooperation from crypto-exchanges and on piecing together disparate sources of information, there are indications that some governments at least have taken a more direct approach to identifying crypto users.

The US, to take the most notable – and disconcerting – example, has developed a covert piece of technology that can actually extract raw internet data from fiber-optic cables in order to identify the IP addresses and IDs of those sending and receiving Bitcoin. According to documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 and published by the Intercept in March 2018, the technology in question is a program developed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and known as OAKSTAR. Masquerading as a piece of virtual private network (VPN) and downloaded by some 16,000 users in such nations as China and Iran, the program instead siphons data from an “unspecified ‘foreign’ fiber cable site,” according to the Intercept.

Using this data, the NSA can then extract such information from Bitcoin users as their password information, their internet browsing activity, and their MAC address, while certain whistle-blown docs also discuss extracting users’ internet addresses, timestamps, and network ports. Effectively, OAKSTAR can be used to gather much more than the information necessary to identify someone and link them to specific Bitcoin addresses and transactions, and it can do so without having to rely on crypto-exchanges.

This is a big blow for Bitcoin privacy. As Cornell University professor Emin Gün Sirer told the Intercept:

“People who are privacy conscious will switch to privacy-oriented coins […] when the adversary model involves the NSA, the pseudonymity disappears. You should really lower your expectations of privacy on this network.”

Similarly, Matthew Green – an assistant prof. at Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute (and a key Zcash developer) – explained to the Intercept that the NSA’s exploits are “bad news for privacy, because it means that in addition to the really hard problem of making [crypto] transactions private […] you also have to make sure all the network connections [are private].”

As alarming as OAKSTAR and the activity surrounding it are, no new information has emerged recently to indicate that the NSA has extended its Bitcoin-tracking endeavors to other cryptocurrencies. There’s also the fact that its ability to link certain people with Bitcoin wallets is predicated on these people unwittingly downloading a piece of software that secretly extracts their internet data (while purporting to provide some other service). As a result, if users stick to VPN packages (and other pieces of software) they know and trust, it’s likely they will avoid the NSA’s long claws.

This reassurance aside, there is still the predictable reality that the United States government has been seeking user data from cryptocurrency exchanges, and has been doing so for longer than either the Japanese or Russian governments. In November 2016, for instance, it filed a legal summons that required Coinbase to provide the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) with the identities of an unspecified number of individuals associated with a number of cryptocurrency wallets. As Cointelegraph reported at the time, this summons was significant not so much in itself, but because it indicated that the IRS had been able to track certain wallets to an extent sufficient to determine that they’d been involved in the violation of tax legislation. Similarly, it also indicated that the IRS had been able to determine that the wallets were attached to Coinbase.

While the IRS unsurprisingly hasn’t divulged how it was able to track these wallets, a 2015 document leaked to the Daily Beast in 2017 revealed that it awarded a contract to Chainalysis, a Switzerland-based “blockchain intelligence” provider that monitors cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin for compliance reasons. As Cointelegraph reported at the time, Chainalysis uses “data scraped from public forums, leaked data sources including dark web, exchange deposits and withdrawals to tag and identify transactions.” It attempts to combine what’s made publicly available on blockchains with personal info unthinkingly/carelessly left by crypto users on the web. It runs, therefore, another system that is less about cryptographically penetrating blockchains and more about simply putting together all the disparate threads of info strewn across the Internet.

And even though the IRS hasn’t explicitly acknowledged its employment of Chainalysis or any other service, it’s also interesting to note that past instances where an agency of the federal US government has succeeded in tracking crypto users have potentially involved input from the NSA. In October 2013, Ross Ulbricht was arrested by FBI agents in San Francisco and then charged (almost a year later) with conspiracy to traffic narcotics, money laundering, and computer hacking. During his trial, he claimed his prosecution violated the fourth amendment (i.e. right to protection against unwarranted searches), since the only way the FBI could have identified him was through the illegal help of the NSA and its data-gathering trickery. Needless to say, this defense didn’t exactly work, yet the Intercept noted that the NSA’s OAKSTAR project got under way six months before Ulbricht was arrested. More interestingly, the website also published classified documents in November 2017 revealing that the NSA had secretly helped the FBI secure other convictions in the past.

Whatever the truth behind Ulbricht’s conviction, it’s clear that the NSA has had the ability to covertly identify Bitcoin users for over five years, while it’s also true that other US agencies have been tracking crypto transactions (using undisclosed means). As such, it’s a safe bet to say that American crypto users should probably think carefully before engaging in anything Uncle Sam wouldn’t condone.

China, India and beyond

China and India

It would appear that few nations can match the US in the reach and power of their crypto-tracking activities. However, this isn’t stopping many from trying. In China, reports emerged in March that the Public Information Network Security Supervision (PINSS) agency has been monitoring foreign crypto-exchanges that serve Chinese customers. Even though the government has banned domestic exchanges and trading on foreign alternatives, this hasn’t stopped every Chinese trader from seeking out crypto abroad. Because of this, PINSS has been ‘monitoring’ foreign exchanges so as to “prevent illegal money laundering, pyramid schemes [and] fraud,” according to Chinese news outlet Yicai.

While Yicai could confirm via sources at PINSS that such monitoring had been underways since September 2017, it couldn’t explain just what kind of monitoring was being pursued, or whether the Chinese government was actively trying to identify individuals trading in crypto. Still, whatever the extent of the surveillance involved, the knowledge that other nations are tracking crypto would indicate that Chinese traders should also add themselves to the growing list of ‘people who ought to be careful.’

So too should Indian traders, who in January may or may not have learned that their government was keeping tabs on them for tax purposes. Actually, chances are they would have learned about this, since the Indian tax department sent notices to “tens of thousands” of investors (according to Reuters), after having conducted national surveys and having obtained user data from nine Indian exchanges. This provided a clear signal that the government was indeed tracking cryptocurrency transactions, something which it had begun contemplating in July 2017, when India’s Supreme Court demanded information from it and the Reserve Bank of India on the steps being taken to ensure that crypto isn’t being used for illicit purposes.

As reported in July by Indian news website LiveMint, the system the government was considering, would involve cooperation between the central bank, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), and India’s intelligence agencies. However, as the involvement of India’s crypto-exchanges in January’s tax notices reveals, it’s once again likely that the system currently rests on input from these exchanges, rather than on technology comparable to the NSA’s, for instance.

Other than the prominent examples of Japan, Russian, the US, China and India, there are few other cases of national governments going public with (or being known for) crypto-tracking systems. Nonetheless, even if there’s currently no public record of other governments investigating the potential for tracking systems, it’s highly probable that those governments with a significant interest in crypto have contemplated a tracking system in one form or another.

UK and EU

For example, the UK and EU governments jointly announced in December 2017 that they’re planning a “crackdown” on crypto-enabled money laundering and tax evasion. UK economic secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said in last October:

“The UK government is currently negotiating amendments to the anti-money-laundering directive that will bring virtual currency exchange platforms and custodian wallet providers into anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regulation, which will result in these firms’ activities being overseen by national competent authorities for these areas.”

While this doesn’t confirm tracking, it would at least imply it, since the ability to enforce AML legislation entails that governmental bodies and departments should have some means of not only detecting when someone is earning crypto that needs to be taxed, but also determining just who that person is. Hence, UK and EU authorities need to have some kind of tracking system in place, otherwise their threats of ‘cracking down’ on money laundering and the like will equate to only so much hot air.

And in the future, it may become increasingly possible for them or any other government, regardless of technological development, to carry through with such threats. In April, a corporate giant none other than Amazon, received a patent for a “streaming data marketplace” that would permit the combining of multiple data sources, thereby enabling the real-time tracking of cryptocurrency transactions and the users involved. As the text of the patent makes clear, this technology could potentially be offered to governments, who would be able to link crypto addresses to official IDs:

“The electronic retailers may combine the shipping address with the bitcoin transaction data to create correlated data and republish the combined data as a combined data stream. A group of telecommunications providers may subscribe downstream to the combined data stream and be able to correlate the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of the transactions to countries of origin. Government agencies may be able to subscribe downstream and correlate tax transaction data to help identify transaction participants.”

Given the arrival of such technology (and the current existence of such firms as Chainalysis), it’s only a matter of time before transactions involving Bitcoin, Ethereum or any other non-privacy cryptocurrency will be systematically de-anonymized. It will take some time, particularly given that Amazon’s patent requires its users (e.g. retailers and telecoms providers) to combine separate pieces of data in order to create correlations. Still, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that things are moving in only one direction when it comes to the privacy and anonymity of crypto.

Privacy coins

And in light of this direction, anyone wanting to keep their chances of being identified as low as possible is advised to migrate to one of the so-called privacy coins. Monero is the most well-known of these, having entered into 10 most valuable cryptocurrencies by market cap since its initial launch in April 2014. More than anything else, what distinguishes it from the likes of Bitcoin is its CryptoNight proof-of-work algorithm, which uses a mix of ring signatures and stealth addresses to not only bury the sender’s wallet address in those of multiple other users, but also to hide the precise amount being transferred.

It’s because of this that the cryptocurrency has proven popular with those who’ve needed to evade government power (for whatever reason), and such is Monero’s apparent ability in preserving anonymity that its price increased by around 2,883% between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2017 (from $12.3 to $358). By contrast, Bitcoin’s 2017 growth rate was a slightly less impressive 1,357%.

2,883% may be impressive, but it pales in comparison to the 9,000% growth enjoyed in 2017 by Dash, another altcoin with certain privacy-enhancing qualities. The 13th most valuable cryptocurrency by total market cap, its PrivateSend feature mixes addresses so as to obscure the origins and destinations of transactions, in the process making it noticeably harder for any interested authority to put the pieces together.

This may be a part of the reason why the currency has took off so spectacularly in Venezuela, where the government cracked down on such cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, in a big way last year (before showing favoritism towards its own oil-backed Petro coin). Venezuelans also turned increasingly to Zcash during this period, which has become the 21st biggest cryptocurrency since launching in October 2016. Building upon Bitcoin Core’s architecture and using zero-knowledge proofs, it keeps the sender and receiver’s pseudonyms private, while also doing the same for the quantity being transacted.

Therefore, a choice of privacy coins is available for anyone worried about the growing ability of governments to track crypto transactions. And even if a concerned crypto user holds no Monero, Dash, or Zcash, they can still take advantage of the various mixing services available for non-privacy coins. For example,there are anonymization protocols available that, much like the features available via Monero and Zcash, enables senders and receivers of Bitcoin to mix their transactions with those of other senders and receivers, making it very difficult to disentangle the multiple threads involved. Such protocols include the likes of CoinJoin, Dark Wallet, bestmixer.io, SharedCoin, and CoinSwap, all of which also provide holders of Bitcoin and other cryptos with the ability to anonymize their transactions.

So even though cryptocurrency tracking is increasing, crypto investors and holders needn’t be overly fearful of government surveillance. For one, most of the tracking systems in use or which are being developed rely on input from crypto-exchanges, while others (such as those provided by Chainalysis) depend on scavenging data that users may have left carelessly throughout the web. Meanwhile, more direct and intrusive methods being honed by the NSA also rely on crypto users unknowingly compromising their internet connections, something which couldn’t be counted on for monitoring all cryptocurrency transactions en masse. This is why, in addition to such privacy coins as Monero and Zcash, privacy-conscious crypto holders shouldn’t be too concerned, since there are ways of remaining anonymous for those who want it bad enough.

 

This post is credited to cointelegraph  Image source: Cointelegraph

A consortium of 61 Japanese banks, responsible for over 80% of Japan’s banking assets, has begun using a consumer-centric retail payments app using Ripple blockchain technology.

In a tweet by Ripple’s own official handle on Thursday, the San Francisco-based fintech confirmed the app went live on Thursday, nearly seven months after its initial announcement earlier this year. As CCN reported at the time, the app is the product of SBI Ripple Asia, a banking consortium that launched in November 2016 with a focused effort to leverage Ripple’s blockchain technology for domestic bank transfers in Japan.

Dubbed ‘MoneyTap’, the smartphone app will enable real-time, round-the-year domestic money transfers between bank accounts using xCurrent, Ripple’s enterprise blockchain network, details from the app’s website reveal.

Payments can be triggered with the use of a simple QR code or the recipient’s phone number through the application, made available on both iOS and Android platforms. With today’s launch, the MoneyTap app is supported by three specific banks – Suruga Bank, SBI Net Sumishin Bank and Resona Bank, for zero-cost transfers between them. In the scenario of a request for a return of funds, participants will be required to pay a small fee.

Designed to be a quick, small-amount remittance service between everyday residents, MoneyTap allows for a maximum transfer amount of ¥30,000 (approx. $262) per transaction and a ceiling of ¥100,000 ($875) per day.

Japan’s current decades-old national payments clearing platform ‘Zengin’ facilitates domestic money transfers between 8:30 AM and 3:30 PM in Japan, in addition to banking fees.

While the launch of the app is the first notable implementation of commercial blockchain technology on a consumer scale in Japan, Ripple’s tech is also live in Banco Santander’s One Pay FX. A similar application powered by Ripple’s xCurrent, Santander says its retail banking clients in Spain, the UK, Brazil and Poland can settle international payments in a matter of “3 clicks and 40 seconds”.

This post credited to ccn Featured image from MoneyTap.