Anonymity in broadband and cryptocurrency

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Timothy Carter v. United States (No. 16-4012) on the question of whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy where cellphone information stored by a wireless carrier is shared with the government without a warrant issued on the basis of probable cause. The court ruled last Friday that using third-party cell storage location information to track the physical movements of a citizen requires a warrant less the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution be violated. The Fourth Amendment provides the following:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by the oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This opinion is pretty narrow and by that, I mean that the court’s holding in this case may not hold when the issue does not involve seizing information documenting an individual’s movement over a long period of time or the involuntary sharing of such information with a third party.

I admit that on the surface, this case may have nothing to do with the transmission of digital information in the form of currency given its narrow meaning. Cryptocurrency is still in its infant stage. Unlike a cellphone that generates continuous cell site location information, I doubt at this stage of crypto growth that you will have a consumer making 127 straight days of transactions such that miners are continuously verifying a consumer’s transaction blocks. It may be another matter for vendors that accept cryptocurrencies that are accepting crypto every day.

What cryptocurrency does have in common with the case is the threat to anonymity. While the general description of cryptocurrency includes anonymity, anonymity is, like the information transmitted by a cellphone, not guaranteed.  In a piece for CoinDesk.com, writer Adam Ludwin describes how cryptocurrency transactions can be “deanonymized.”  While anonymous, Bitcoin transactions, for example, are not private. Transactions are recorded in a distributed ledger called a blockchain. Anonymity is more a function of the Bitcoin protocol, but during a user loses anonymity when their identities are linked to their initial Bitcoin currency purchases, whether done via a digital wallet or via an exchange.

Mr. Ludwin describes how anonymity can be gained by buying Bitcoin from a private holder or buying from an exchange.  But just like a mobile broadband communications network can betray a subscriber’s identity, so to can a cryptocurrency network, whether via the public nature of Bitcoin’s transactions ledger or via the IP addresses of the computers originating Bitcoin transactions.

 

Is cryptocurrency beneficial to poor Blacks? No.

Yesterday the Bank of International Settlements issued an annual report with a 24-page chapter discussing cryptocurrencies. The report is critical of cryptocurrencies and the premise of decentralization. It argues that cryptocurrency lacks the stability in value and pricing brought about by a centralized payments system. While I am not surprised by the report’s bias toward centralization (BIS is after all the central bank of central banks), I appreciated the detail the report went into when describing decentralized ledger transactions and comparing that system to a centralized, central bank-based system.

The volatility of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin experience may be enough for most consumers to ignore cryptocurrency as a store of value or a medium of exchange.  As was a little perplexed last year when I saw a number of black Americans pushing cryptocurrency as the next big and best bet for achieving wealth. The sidewalk marketing was being done in an environment of unexplained rising Bitcoin value. I am not lying when I say I felt good about Bitcoin falling from highs of about $20,000 end of last year to around $7,000 today.  These people I saw riding buses through Brooklyn telling people to get onboard something so bloody technical that most never understood it needed a reality check, and the relative quiet I experience on social media from the silence was refreshing.

More importantly a pullback invites putting cryptocurrency and money in the proper perspective. First, analyzing new currency spawned by financial technology requires separating ourselves from the emotions.  In the American black community, the first cool dude with swag that can push the right emotional buttons on a people who are over-indexed on emotions will win the day, at least temporarily. Sheep, as Jim Cramer is fond of saying, get slaughtered.

Second, analyzing currency should come with the realization that we understand little about currency, money, markets, and economics. We conflate markets with consumerism and that is a mistake. Consumerist activity is low hanging fruit; easy to grasp because we are quick to meet our emotional needs with a gift bag. Meanwhile, those pushing Bitcoin on us didn’t have a clue as to the economic justifications for the increase. They asked us to view crypto the way we go out and buy houses and cars: come on down because the price is right. That kind of thinking, like the show, is corny.

Currency, whether digital or real, contains a message about an underlying economy. Cryptocurrency has no underlying economy. It cannot transmit messages about the value of an underlying economy because there is no underlying economy to begin with. The realities of an underlying economy keep a currency in check with market transactions providing consumers and producers with information as to how well the economy is doing and whether it is viable enough to project the “good faith” backing of a currency. Crypto does not have an underlying economy. While more vendors are using it, its use is nowhere near the use of real currencies.

For black people to push crypto on poor black people was abominable.

What the high price for a Bitcoin tells us is that if an underlying economy is developed, it will not be a world where the poor will be allowed to play. The price is transmitting a prediction about exclusivity. For example, urban cores like Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco are pricing the poor and middle class out of housing and other amenities. Why not develop a currency that reflects that new reality? Has it ever really been about inclusion or does the reality reflect exclusion?

Bank of International Settlements warns against Bitcoin Hype

Hyun Song Shin, head of research for the Bank of International Settlements, provided some insights on the BIS’ discussion of Bitcoin found in BIS’ annual report released earlier today.  Mr. Hyun described the cryptocurrency as a poor medium of exchange, questioning the cryptocurrency’s low use.  Transactions are “slow and costly”, according to Mr. Hyun.  From the BIS website:

“Cryptocurrencies promise to replace trusted institutions with distributed ledger technology. Yet, looking beyond the hype, it is hard to identify a specific economic problem which they currently solve. Transactions are slow and costly, prone to congestion, and cannot scale with demand. The decentralised consensus behind the technology is also fragile and consumes vast amounts of energy. Still, distributed ledger technology could have promise in other applications. Policy responses need to prevent abuses while allowing further experimentation.”

In his brief description of the Bitcoin production process, Mr. Hyun warned that the ability of miners to choose which transactions to process may result in users paying a higher price to get their transactions onto the cryptocurrency’s distributed ledger.  The process is a congested one, but as production capacity lessens, so to does a miner’s incentive to extract Bitcoin.

The physics of capital

Is capital is fixed? Like energy can it neither be created or destroyed? In an hour from this writing financial markets in the United States will open up for trading. These markets act as the medium for converting cash into stocks or bonds. The law of energy would describe this conversion as the creation of a disordered state where the original form of matter, in this case cash, is turned into a more disordered state, in this case a security.

The market process does not follow the law of energy precisely. Whereas after converting matter into a disordered state means that the resulting products cannot be recombined into the original form, the stocks and bonds purchased with cash can be sold in the markets with the result being the original form, cash.

The market provides a conduit for energy transfer, the transfer between cash and securities. I consider the energy transfer that we see in the financial markets as an echo of the original and most important form of capital: information and knowledge. Information and knowledge are the “big bang” of our capital universe. The information that we derive about and from the land allow us to create and use knowledge about farming, mining, fishing. As the land becomes increasingly valuable as a source of goods and services, we use this knowledge about productivity as leverage for creating banks and banking and payment systems. Through lending and borrowing money is created and these funds can be used to expand productive capacity or invest in stocks or bonds.

Information isn’t the capital of the 21st century. It has been the premier capital of human existence. All other substance we refer to as capital emanates from this origin and is a reflection of the value of information.

I would argue that knowledge and information represent another divergence away from the laws of energy. Knowledge and information are not fixed. Man is always discovering something new whether about himself as a sovereign or about the universe around her. The more she discovers and the better she is at communicating her discoveries, the more capital in the form of currency that she can accumulate.

Currency transmits to the markets the value its holder has. It should also signal us to look behind the currency to determine who the holder is.  The rapper who has $300,000 in currency but owns no productive property and has no prospects for another hit album in a year has low value. The markets will not want to trade with him on a continuous basis versus a writer with $50,000 in coin but also owns land that she rents out for farming and is able to write software apps when not writing music. The market will see her as high value and will trade her currency.

This creates a political dilemma for politicians who claim to represent the interests of the poor. They must now come to terms with an information gap spurred on by a lack of critical thinking skills in America. Solving real world problems not only benefits the individual but benefits communities overall as solutions are distributed throughout communities. The ability to bring solutions to real world problems enhances value and creates currency. For the poor access to quality education or other resources that provide a conduit to knowledge should be at the top of the policy agenda if they are to survive an economy that asserts a greater need for knowledge and information talent.

Capital may, after all, not be fixed and can be created. Information is the most important source of capital and like energy needs an infrastructure that allows its generators to signal and transmit value.

 

Why Google’s investors may want it to issue its own cryptocurrency

Let’s say a certain individual or corporation has generated a lot of value for society.  Its quality of product, service, or information is consistent. There is increasing demand for its product. Customers are enamored with anything affiliated with the product.

Now suppose this high value individual or corporation leverages its value by issuing a digital coin of its own. In the beginning it accepts this coin only along with fiat cash. During this phase, the issuing corporation decides to accept digital coin from other high-value corporations, say Amazon accepting Google-issued coin and vice-versa.

Other producers from manufacturers to farmers to utilities rather than issue their own coin or mine other types of coin may decide to accept coin issued by high value corporations, again based on the premise that the products, services, or information produced by these corporations is consistent.

To further maintain the value of the coin, these corporations would act like mini-central banks, capping the amount of coin made available and driving up the coins price. They could also increase exclusivity of their product by prohibiting the exchange of their coin for fiat cash.

I suspect the wealth class would like a wide moat around their investments. The ability to move their transactions to cyberspace and become mini-sovereigns with favorable tax treatment will be topped off by creating their own “consumer resort.”

And the four week fall in cryptocurrency prices helps allowing them to either short cryptos or merely pick them up on the cheap.

We may be at the beginning of a different type of fork where the wealthy will enjoy cryptocurrency derived from a decentralized platform while the “information poor” are stuck with a digitized fiat currency. It is still to early to see if that scenario plays out since, at least in the United States, the federal government has made no decision to regulate cryptocurrency as anything else but a payment system and there are no plans right now to develop a “fedcoin.”

 

Decentralization like anarchy is threatened by a fear of vacuum

China is increasingly its crackdown on the production of cryptocurrency including Bitcoin. Last year China prohibited the issuance of new cryptocurrency and today is taking the attack a step further by shutting down China’s mining network, a network reportedly responsible for 80% of the mining power behind the cryptocurrency production platform. It comes to me as no surprise that a severely centralized political economy would allow a value exchange system predicated on decentralization to go on about its business unchallenged. China appears to prefer nip the decentralization concept in the bud now versus following the rest of the world down the rabbit hole and the eventual violent repercussions.

What cryptocurrency investors in other tax and customs jurisdictions will eventually find out over the next decade is that decentralization or controlled anarchy is a temporary state of societal mind. Probably from the time tribes started to trade with each other and currency, property, trade rules, and contracts were put in place, anarchy has occupied the briefest periods. It takes little time before someone pretends to be Ghengis Khan and wants to “unite” the clans in the name of order and peace. The same thing, I suspect, will also happen with cryptocurrency.

I view corporations as privateers, licensed by government to ensure that government’s tax extraction system works smoothly on a day-to-day basis. Corporations create taxable activities by extracting resources, converting resources into inputs; converting inputs into final products, and selling those final products to end users. End users are employed during the resource extraction, organization, sale process and as employees are converted into payers of an income tax. Employees are also consumers and as such see the income taxes of business firms passed on to them via a sales tax. Corporations are the tax monetizers in the government tax receipts system and as such will do the State’s bidding when the State identifies a threat and calls on the corporation to help fortify it.

One corporation that will be called on to help fortify the State against cryptocurrency attempts at usurping State power will be the utilities. The utilities are the paragon of centralization and provide great game plans for any wanna be monopolist who wants to protect its turf. More important, utilities, especially in tax and customs jurisdictions where distributed generation has not taken hold, will be at the front line of the push back on cryptocurrency. Miners should not be surprised that the State cuts off their electricity. Last time I checked, digital equipment runs on electricity.

Another consideration is how the State will employ broadband providers in their crackdown. I see the State using net neutrality principles to force internet service providers to provide as much information as possible on the encrypted cryptocurrency data flowing across their networks. Net neutrality requires that internet service providers provide consumers with network management information as it pertains to the delivery of their services. I can see the Federal Communications Commission bringing its own action to force these companies to provide them with information on network activity as well.

And what is to stop the further broadening of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act by requiring that mobile and fixed wire broadband access providers participate where technically feasible in decrypting encrypted messages that contain cryptocurrency information? Congress will have to be moved by continued strategic communications geared to persuading members that the potential use of cryptocurrency by sex traffickers and drug smugglers warrants significant amendment to the Act to cover garnering information on cryptocurrency transactions.

All States are built on centralization. Whether a communist or capitalist model is only a matter of degree.

 

When Bitcoin becomes a transmitter of valuable information

Bitcoin is not for speculation. Bitcoin is about the transmission and exchange of valuable information attached to a digital currency that measures the value of the information. The volatility we are seeing in the market for Bitcoin is based on the fear of missing out on a pop in value.

I think in the near future what will eventually drive the value of Bitcoin is the underlying value of the information that the individual sovereign either possesses or can produce. It is likely that person A holding Bitcoin may look at person B who allegedly has some information, x, and determine that the person B’s information or ability to generate useful information has no value. Think of someone in London approached by someone from Somalia who wishes to trade in Somalian currency. The Londoner wouldn’t touch it.

You may argue that scenario already occurs in the real world, that trader A is not required to transact with trader B. In a centralized world, trader B would bring a discrimination grievance against trader A for refusing to trade. In a decentralized, voluntaryist cyber world, no matter how much cryptocurrency you hold, the value of your true currency, the information that you possess or can produce, will determine your digital currency’s value.

As for the speculators, the error they make is using valuation methods created in a centralized, coercive political economy to assess the value of a currency designed for a decentralized cyber society. A speculators are enjoying the upside of Bitcoin’s market appreciation, but as the currency becomes more expensive and reaches its 21 million digital currency cap, will these speculators be able to purchase any more of the currency? Or, will they be able to ride out the inflationary characteristic the coin takes on should it become a matter of two few Bitcoin chasing too many goods? Will lower income individuals who may have made their first purchases with their credit cards be able to recover the dollar value of the coin in order to pay off increasing interest rates?

Not to mention the competing currencies that will eventually knock off Bitcoin from its perch. As technology improves such that “information rich” individuals create their own cryptocurrency, individual sovereignty will be complete. Just like western nations trade with each other based primarily on similar values and culture, the information rich will do the same. As the value of their currency increases so to will the demand from vendors who will likely prefer hold in reserve the currency of the information rich versus the “information poor.”

I believe that the information poor or “information losers” who were lucky to get a few pieces of a coin in the early days will not be able to participate on either side of a cyber trade in the future. Their focus should be on building their information gathering tools versus pursuing a quick fix, get rich path.

Cyber space will remain decentralized by the silos created by the information rich will prove daunting for the information poor.

Bitcoin doesn’t threaten U.S. position as a tax and customs jurisdiction

Back on 16 November I posted a brief post opining on whether the federal government would go after Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that has appreciated immensely in value this year. I wrote that if anything, the Federal Reserve would consider issuing there own digital currency. Federal Reserve Bank of New York president William Dudley alluded to the central bank issuing its own digital currency back on 28 November although nothing definitive has been set.

Readers should bear in mind that the primary role of the United States government is to conduct a resource extraction and protection scheme over its physical jurisdiction. To carry out these main functions it taxes citizens and businesses. Bitcoin is property and where an investor enjoys gains from the sale of that property, the United States Treasury will be there to collect. According to a 2013 report by the General Accounting Office, right now the biggest tax problem surrounding cryptocurrency is ensuring that taxpayers either investing in or using Bitcoin for transacting commerce are aware that they may be liable for taxes.

Fortunately for taxpayers investing in or using Bitcoin, the Internal Revenue Service does not have the resources to implement a tax compliance approach specific to virtual economies and virtual or cryptocurrency. The GAO recommended that at the least the IRS use a low cost information distribution approach, its website, to make taxpayers aware that they may be liable for income taxes as a result of investing in cryptocurrency.

Whether you agree with Warren Buffet’s assessment on Bitcoin, something that isn’t real and producing no dividends hence scheduled to implode, what’s real is that the Internal Revenue Service is ready to collect.

My instincts tell me the feds won’t go after Bitcoin … for now

The financial press has been focusing on Bitcoin’s rapid appreciation in value of late. The value of a single Bitcoin eclipsed the $7,000 mark a couple weeks ago. At the time of this writing, Bitcoin.com reported the cryptocurrency is selling for around $7,171 while its “fork”, Bitcoin Cash, is selling at $1,181.

Supply and demand primarily drive the price the currency. I guess it also helps that over 100,000 merchants accept the coin. A payment system driven by blockchain provides Bitcoin owners additional certainty about who actually owns a generated coin at a particular time. Also the near instantaneous payment is an attractive feature.

In my business, I focus on political threats and I see the Federal Reserve taking a parallel approach to Bitcoin as a payment system. One possible route is issuing its own digital currency supported by an enhanced payment system. A report filed last September by CNBC described a recommendation by the Bank of International Settlements that central banks consider issuing their own digital currencies.

Also, the Federal Reserve is in the process of revamping the payments process system. Bitcoin competes with at least two prongs of the Federal Reserve’s payments system: clearinghouse services and coin distribution services. Federal Reserve governor and Fed chair nominee, Jerome Powell, currently serves as co-chair of the Federal Reserve’s payments improvement oversight committee. I expect given Bitcoin’s growing popularity, the appeal of blockchain, and the concerns about using cryptocurrency for fraudulent purposes that should Mr Powell become Fed chair, improving the payments system and increasing the Fed’s ability to compete with innovative payment systems will remain a priority.

 

Net neutrality’s transparency rules do nothing for Bitcoin

As transparent as Bitcoin’s underlying block chain process is for Bitcoin users, there is still a need for protecting the privacy of the user when moving Bitcoin from seller to purchaser. Current net neutrality rules on transparency may negatively impact the need for privacy.

Experts at Bitcoin.org warn the crypto-currency’s use to protect the IP addresses used during Bitcoin transactions. Including an IP address on a website or social network site may not be a good idea if maintaining anonymity is crucial. Once a Bitcoin address is used to receive a payment, the address becomes traceable along with all other transactions associated with the address.

Further, according to Bitcoin.org, since the currency’s users usually reveal their identity’s in order to receive goods or services (like a Klingon or Romulan starship decloaks before firing), Bitcoin addresses won’t remain fully anonymous.

Question is, as investment in Bitcoin and transactions using Bitcoin increase, why would the Federal Communications Commission pursue a net neutrality regime that includes an intrusive transparency requirement?

Current net neutrality rules require that broadband providers disclose certain details about network management including disclosures about congestion management practices and the types of traffic subject to those practices. Proponents of the transparency component of net neutrality rules argue that these rules protect consumers against misinformation about prices, services offered, and data speeds.

What isn’t discussed by net neutrality advocates is the slippery slope that transparency embarks on when it comes to Bitcoin. For example, as more consumers use broadband, and in particular mobile broadband to conduct Bitcoin transactions, should we put their anonymity at risk by requiring broadband provides disclose information about the data Bitcoin users send?

Bitcoin could become mainstream over the next ten years especially given its use of the blockchain. Should intrusive transparency rules be allowed to slow down this train?