Contrary to popular belief, privacy is not for those with something to hide but with everything to lose. Authoritarian governments across the globe are increasingly using surveillance to control their citizens at the expense of personal freedoms and civil liberties. The privacy of one’s financial transactions is intricately linked to one’s personal liberty. Without privacy (and financial means), true freedom is at risk. We are rendered powerless to resist oppression.
The promise of cryptocurrency is that it is uncensorable and unseizable money for the people. But Bitcoin (BTC), which was supposed to be like peer-to-peer digital cash, lacks privacy, which is essential to enabling these properties. In an increasingly connected and data-driven world where surveillance and data harvesting is the norm, we must treat privacy as a fundamental human right. If we believe in the original tenets of cryptocurrency as a decentralized and self-sovereign form of money, we need to fight to maintain our right to be private.
Some cryptocurrency projects seem to be apologetic for being privacy-focused, given the current regulatory climate and common misconception that privacy coins are used by criminals to hide illicit activities. Consequently, we see other projects in the space, such as Zcash (ZEC), Dash (DASH) or even Bitcoin adopting opt-in privacy models, which clearly do not work.
Low usage means low privacy, as indicated by Chainalysis’ findings that 99% of Zcash transactions are partially traceable and that the firm can perform successful investigations into Dash’s PrivateSends. Other studies also indicate that despite Zcash’s advanced technology, many users who did not completely understand how its privacy worked used it improperly and made it traceable anyway. Yet, the fact is: No matter how advanced the privacy technology employed, it is meaningless if it is not used. Privacy likes being in a crowd. Privacy needs to be easy-to-use.
Various explanations have been given as to why these privacy cryptocurrencies do not seem to want to encourage greater adoption of private transactions. The primary reason being that they need to play nice with regulators, who are uncomfortable with the idea of private transactions. Despite its early origins being one of the first privacy coins, called Darkcoin, Dash goes to great lengths to distance itself from being called a privacy cryptocurrency, including with a published legal position that in terms of privacy, it is no different than Bitcoin. These timid approaches do privacy a great disservice, characterizing it as something shameful.
A better, bolder approach is privacy-on by default, with transparency opt-in. Offering the privacy protocol Lelantus, which automatically anonymizes funds in a wallet, but also allows for the option of turning it off when needed, serves to maintain easy adoption for exchanges and wallets that do a high volume of sends but don’t necessarily want the overhead of privacy transactions.
Since the exchange knows your identity anyway, there is no need for sacrificing anything but gaining the benefit of large anonymity sets and fast, lightweight transactions for exchanges and ease-of-integration with the larger crypto ecosystem that is used to dealing with Bitcoin-type coins. This is especially important when integrating into decentralized exchanges or for interoperability for DeFi transactions.
Playing nice with regulators
Privacy coins are concerned about their survival in an increasingly hostile regulatory environment, in which it is easier to maintain opt-in privacy for compliance reasons. While significant pressure against privacy coins comes from banks or concerned regulators, there is no outright statutory or common law against them. Even the revised “travel rule,” or FATF rules that impose additional obligations on disclosure, as well as Anti-Money Laundering rules for exchanges and custodial wallets, do not ban privacy coins. Virtual asset service providers, or VASPs, can still disclose sender identity, as they already know who you are regardless of blockchain privacy mechanisms.
Privacy for all
We strongly reject the common argument that privacy technologies enable illicit activity. Recent studies such as the Rand Corporation’s report states:
“While privacy coins may intuitively appear likely to be preferred by malicious actors due to their purported anonymity-preserving features, there is little evidence to substantiate this claim.”
The traditional fiat world continues to make it easy to launder money without having to resort to the complexities and volatility of cryptocurrencies. For example, trade-based money laundering is still simple to do and hard to detect. Additionally, the “National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment” report published in 2018 continues to cite the banking system and complicit money services businesses as the primary way that terrorist funding is facilitated.
Many of these reports indicate that the right way to combat these is through robust international regulation and law enforcement, as well as improved coordination between the public and private sectors. None of these reports suggest the banning of privacy technologies or cryptocurrencies.
Any cryptocurrency that wants to remain true to the original purpose must include privacy. With the development of blockchain technology, we are at the precipice of a self-sovereign financial system in which we have complete control over our assets. We envision a system in which the freedom and opportunities of true economic equality, and not just financial equality, are guaranteed for everyone. To reach these lofty goals, privacy is essential to preserving our rights and the freedoms therein. The cryptocurrency industry must come together to champion privacy and work to further its wide-scale adoption. Our goal is to change public perception and make privacy a value worth fighting for.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Reuben Yap serves as the project steward for Zcoin, a global privacy-first digital currency. He was a corporate lawyer for ten years specializing in institutional frameworks before joining Zcoin. Reuben has been a strong advocate of online and financial privacy for over a decade. He founded one of South-East Asia’s top VPN companies, BolehVPN, and was the first merchant in Malaysia to accept cryptocurrencies. Reuben graduated with a bachelor of laws from the University of Nottingham.