International Law Enforcement Gathered to Share Concerns About Bitcoin and Money Laundering

Between January 16 and January 18 of 2017, more than 400 cybercrime, cybersecurity, and money laundering investigators met in Doha, Qatar to discuss digital currency. Specifically, the organizations gathered to analyze the role digital currencies like Bitcoin played on money laundering, economic stability, and terrorist funding. The Working Group on Virtual Currencies—a jointly operated initiative from Europol, Interpol, and the Basel Institute on Governance—organized the event but authorities in Qatar paid for the conference.

According to the Basel Institute on Governance, the three organizations—two government and one private sector—shared concerns about the future of cryptocurrency. These “modern payment methods,” they wrote in the press release, caused concern based on their growing use in organized crime. The digital currency inherently required advanced money laundering methods after any involvement with organized crime.

The organizations at the event agreed that cryptocurrencies stealthily switched from being the proceeds of a criminal enterprise to being clean money. Many illegal Bitcoin exchanges and tumblers operated for this purpose alone, speakers said. “All countries are advised to take action against Digital Currencies Mixers/Tumblers,” the Basel Institute on Governance wrote. “Such services are designed exclusively to anonymize transactions and to make it impossible for Law Enforcement Agencies to detect and trace suspicious transactions. The existence of such companies should not continue to be tolerated.”

Despite lacking judicial powers, the European Police Office announced that they recognized the “danger that virtual currencies pose in the hands of criminals and terrorists and is prepared to face the challenges that lay ahead.” Europol assisted global law enforcement by studying Bitcoin in 2015.

Europol, Interpol, and the Basel Institute for Governance joined each other in a fight against terrorist funding via cryptocurrencies in September 2016. “There is a clear consensus that digital currencies pose a money laundering and terrorism financing threat,” the press release announced last year. The partnership followed a Europol study on Bitcoin’s role in terrorist financing with contradictory findings. The study showed that “despite third party reporting suggesting the use of anonymous currencies like Bitcoin by terrorists to finance their activities, this has not been confirmed by law enforcement.” Last year, Europol lost 700 pages of terrorism-related information. If nothing else, possession of 700 pages indicated that Europol knew at least something about terrorism—the Bitcoin section likely originated from reliable data.

Another thought that formed during the convention involved “suspicious Bitcoin addresses.” They concluded that law enforcement agencies needed to give these addresses special attention. Suspicious Bitcoin addresses required international cooperation to investigate and should be given to the “international exchange of suspicious Bitcoin addresses.”

The organizations called for and recommended additional training in this department, along with a greater handoff of relevant information:

“All countries should increase training initiatives in this field (manuals, training initiatives, exchange programs and international conferences). Special attention should be dedicated to Regulators, Prosecutors and Judges, FIU Experts, Police Investigators and relevant private partners. International regular training on trends, new technologies, and financial innovation should also be provided by FATF, Interpol, Europol, CEPOL and the Basel Institute on Governance to make sure experiences and best practices are shared thus achieving similar international standards.”

Most importantly, the groups agreed, law enforcement needed to collaborate more efficiently to keep up with illegal Bitcoin transactions. Authorities must fight to end the existence of mixers and tumblers that are “designed exclusively” to prevent law enforcement from following the money.

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