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Cryptocurrency in Threat Finance: The Manipulation of Non-Fiat Digital Currencies to Finance Nefarious Actors
This paper focuses on emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) in the threat finance world concerning cryptocurrencies. It will examine critical vulnerabilities in the crypto market, explore how non-fiat currencies have altered conventional money laundering techniques, and consider potential adversarial use of distributed computational infrastructure. This study will conclude with policy recommendations to US Government officials at the national, strategic, and operational levels that are designed to enable greater scouting of emerging technologies, which may be exploited.
The Rise of Cryptocurrency
Sprouting from the American technological landscape in the last decade, blockchain promises to reform private and public industries in every economic segment and investment vertical. From major professional service companies to agile tech start-ups, entities have self-declared expertise in its use, application, and effect on traditional and frontier markets alike. Woven into this technological growth narrative is the spread of non-fiat cryptocurrencies, which are underwritten by this very same blockchain technology. Cryptocurrencies have two primary attributes that differentiate it from fiat-based currency; first, cryptocurrencies embrace a decentralized and distributed digital ledger that obviates the need for a centralized authority to validate transactions; second, they can be issued and owned by individual, group, private, public, state, or non-state actors alike.
State officials across the globe believe cryptocurrencies pose an imminent threat to state and regime legitimacy by introducing a non-national-controlled currency to store and transfer value and wealth within society. Advocates of cryptocurrencies argue for a new economic order where states no longer dictate what does and does not have value in society. Advocates also argue that because a hard commodity no longer backs a state’s fiat-based money, its power as a medium of value is merely subjective and abstract in nature—thus cryptocurrency endows the citizen, not the government, to justify what is of value. The existing discourse surrounding the proliferation of cryptocurrency teems with a feeling of libertarianism and seeks to endow individuals with a new sense of agency.
Blockchain’s first database and reference implementation was published open source and available for free download by Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym for an unknown developer or group of developers. The original white paper was released in November of 2008 and the first project, known as Bitcoin, was started in the following January of 2009. The act of anonymously posting the underlying code for free embodies the very nature of what cryptocurrency means to existing capital markets. Serving as a disrupter in its truest form, cryptocurrency and its underlying blockchain technology is not simply an emergent trend, but rather it affects the conceptual underpinnings of society and esoteric perceptions such as identity, risk, and trust. Not only does blockchain technology enable transparent transactions, it also allows for new forms of identity to be created—a fact that is perfectly exemplified by its unknown creator, Nakamoto (Krotoski, 2012).
The Changing Nature of Identity Online
Blockchain creates a truth among transactions not previously achieved through traditional banking processes. Through rapid and segmented updates across a distributed digital ledger, a single transaction is recorded across thousands of randomized computers to prevent manipulation or fraud. This truth is reliant upon the assumption that an actor is unable to hack and alter the thousands of randomized digital ledgers simultaneously. Absent of this creation of truth, formal value transfer systems have been, and continue to be, easily manipulated by threat entities seeking to launder money or conceal true beneficial owner. In fact, the practice of money laundering, or hiding the true valuation of one’s business from tax collectors, is as old as money itself (FindLaw). The conventional laundering process of placement, layering, and integration has been grossly complicated by the advent and decentralization of cryptocurrencies.
Traditional laundering operations have aimed to obscure two aspects of value transfer process, identity and the organic sourcing of funds. Over the last three decades of flourished internet use, physical distance through web protocols and the ability to conceal true identity has empowered everyday web users to engage in increasingly risky behavior (Brock, 2015). With access to unindexed internet addresses, the “dark web” has created a kind of virtual black market for those seeking to engage in illicit business dealings thus creating a marketplace for drugs, weapons, humans, and other illegal activities.
Initially, this emerging sense of anonymity enabled internet users to “troll” one another, seeking no more than to provoke emotional responses from others driving painful cultural wedges into political cleavages. As we saw in the 2016 US presidential election, human-backed trolling efforts were replaced by automated bots that were taught to target specific human influencers on social media platforms making it possible for states to wage coordinated influence campaigns against one another.
Along with this newfound anonymity came changing definitions of identity, risk, and challenges to one’s authentic self in the digital world. The hyperconnectivity of today’s open internet has endowed each citizen with several overlapping digital personas spanning both public and private spheres concurrently (Solon, 2017). An individual may have personas on Facebook or Twitter, but also electronic signatures and pattern-of-life personas as a husband, father, son, little league coach, soldier, or Ohio State fan. Each of these personas produces digital exhaust in the form of both indexed and unindexed data points. We have learned that all of this contextual information has created a kind of social plurality where one’s culture plays an integral role in dictating how an individual develops their many personas. Like social media platforms that allow one to fabricate and control identity, cryptocurrency empowers an individual through anonymity. Thus, in the threat finance space the common mantra “follow the money” has been inherently altered with the advent of cryptocurrencies. What is required is the ability to connect entities and networks using contextual data points. Monetary exchange is only one “connection,” but there exist many other networks from which seemingly disparate data nodes can be used to illuminate all relationships.
As a disrupter to the traditional venture capital structure, ICO’s offer an alternative business model to raising capital than the capital-for-equity exchange that has grown common in places like Silicon Valley and New York City (Schliefer, 2017). These conventional powerbrokers have created corporate stovepipes of stifling true innovation. Rejecting this model, some argue that cryptocurrency’s ease of use enables innovators to seek alternative investors—a phenomenon that makes capital more accessible; good for start-ups, good for investors, and great for the innovation economy (Shin, 2017). But security professionals see a double-edged sword in decentralized capital distribution because accessibility matched with anonymity enables threat actors to lace investment activity with nefarious intentions (Choudhury, 2017). In fact, during the rise of diversified ICO’s in 2017, multiple reports were made indicating hackers had exploited human error in the development of multisig code of some Ethereum wallets. What was called the Parity Hacks, resulted in the theft of Ether estimated to be worth tens of millions of USD. Though these criminal acts are committed with total anonymity, the US Government has reason to believe the attacks originated from North Korea. In this case, the only way to stop the theft of the Parity Multisig Wallet was for good Samaritan white hats to beat the criminals to the treasure themselves, and steal the remaining Ether back to safety, before returning it to its rightful owner. The irony of hacking electronic wallets and stealing money back to safety further challenges the conventional definition of identity (e.g. good vs. bad), which cryptocurrency has introduced to society.
Laundering Cryptocurrency Operations
Hiding money from authorities is an ancient practice. Around 2000 B.C.E., merchants across Asia practiced parallel banking to move earned income off-shore and out of the reach of regimes and despots alike. Today, centers of finance like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur continue to serve as passthroughs for regional tycoons moving money out of the purview of the prying eyes of authorities. As a result, places like China, Taiwan, and Indonesia see a historic rise in consolidated wealth. In China alone, there are now over 1.87 million High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) defined as those with the liquidity of over CN¥10 million (equivalent to US$1.5 million) at any given time (Juwai).
Like all entities facing rapid expansion and growth, or HNWI who wish to conceal wealth generation, the money laundering process continues to churn today involving some of the most prestigious banks and private equity portfolios, and basic methods to do so remain the same. First, placement of funds is typically spent in round numbers (e.g. US$50,000 or $250,000) on advisory services that prove to be subjective and intangible. Second, these funds are cleansed through a series of layered businesses (interestingly, the term laundering comes from the common practice of using laundromats as fronts to pass-through dirty money). As law enforcement become savvy to the tactics and techniques of organized crime, legitimate businesses were involved in the layering process to conceal intent and knowledge of wrong doing. Often criminals would operate with a loss deemed acceptable in order to involved unwitting legitimate partners. Finally, the integration of laundered funds back into the legitimate economy is typically executed through the purchase of assets like real estate, automobiles, boats, and other high cost items that retain book value (Morris-Cotterill).
Traditionally, the step that brings the most risk into this process is the initial placement of money. Because carrying funds across borders in sums larger than US$10,000 is subject to inspection by US federal law enforcement, money has to be either deposited into a bank or placed onto the accounting books of an existing business—both of these transactions have their own form of discernable digital exhaust. Once the money is moved into a location where it is placed into a purchase agreement, the initial bank deposit or acquisition of a service can signal to law enforcement that a taxable event has occurred. Cryptocurrencies have grossly complicated this process of transaction signaling making the placement of laundered money much easier to conceal from law enforcement and intelligence officials. For example, today digital currencies are transported on external drives, placed on Nano S digital ledgers, put in cold storage, uploaded into the cloud, or simply handwritten with a hash on the back of an airline napkin. As a result, law enforcement is unable to track the movement of value, whether it be US$10,000 or $100 million. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration is unable to safely scan every electronic device that passes through an airport or shipping terminal without significantly hindering efficiency of international travel. Once moved into an amicable marketplace, tools like a crypto mixer, or more effectively the medium Zcash, allow the placement of initial buy-ins to the legitimate market to be truly anonymous. Subsequently, transactions coming from countries like Columbia, China, and Russia have the same electronic signature as a transaction originating in Texas, California, or New Hampshire.
Placement is not the only laundering phase altered by cryptocurrencies, the method of layering has also been transformed. Now with Tor protection, a fungible currency like Monero can be used to exchange one currency for another allowing gray market activities to obfuscate point of origin with relative ease quickly. States such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan are more capable of laundering state money into the hands of threat actors and terror groups. In light of new technologies that enable material support for terrorism, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cautioned cryptocurrency investors in July of 2017 that digital currencies may be subject to regulation as a security. Specifically, the Commission focused on Ether token sales by Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO) utilizing Ethereum’s smart contracts citing Know Your Customer (KYC) concerns as the impetus (Churchouse, 2017).
Customer due diligence practices exercised by financial institutions with the intent to stay on the right side of the July memorandum represent an important entry into the cryptocurrency space. The memo proves the US Government is willing and able to get involved in crypto regulation (Osborne, 2017). Driven by rumors through Track II diplomatic channels which indicated that China, Japan, and Singapore were also going to make rulings, KYC methods have consequently become increasingly rigorous in just the last few months (Haig, 2017). As was rumored, Singapore issued its first statement to regulate crypto in August of 2017, China outlawed all ICO’s in an effort to curtail fraudulent capital raising practices in September, and Japan passed its own form of regulatory oversight to combat predatory practices in October (Acheson, 2017). On the other hand, after meeting with Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin in October, Vladamir Putin announced the Russian Federation will enact five laws to fully integrate cryptocurrencies into the existing digital Ruble program offered by the Russian Central Bank indicating government endorsement (Liao, 2017) and (Kremlin.ru Acts).
Mining at Scale: Distributed Infrastructure, Consolidated Mission
Mining for cryptocurrency is a labor-intensive process for a computer. Processing power from servers is used to solve complex mathematical equations to release organically mined digital currencies. Server farms have been built to work day and night creating new wealth, and they have seen immediate success attracting the eye of new investors. Accordingly, there has been a rapid clime in the value of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and the NVIDIA Corporation due to the mass purchases of graphics processing units (GPUs), both headquartered in Silicon Valley.
The benefits to a threat actor of mining cryptocurrency organically should not be underestimated. Not only is one creating new value when crypto is mined, but the coins are completely anonymized up until the moment they enter an exchange. A side effect to this process of mining though, it that it requires vast amounts of electricity and infrastructure to support. According to one report, a single Ethereum transaction requires 53kWh of electricity, which roughly equates to the total amount of energy the average American home consumes over a two-day period; and there are roughly 300,000 Ethereum transactions daily.
Organically mined cryptocurrency offers adversarial forces new ways to sustain operations. Places like China and Russia are hotbeds for cryptocurrency mining operations, endowing the region with value transfer absent of fiscal identity—a dangerous factor in the minds of American national security strategists (Horwitz, 2017). State-funded efforts to launder money to support insurgent organizations aim to undermine the political legitimacy of target nations. To complicate the matter, organically mined and anonymous coin can be traded for goods and services, easing the burden on the placement phase of laundering operations. As a result, these mining operations have invested in infrastructure acting as a force multiplier to expedite coin release. For instance, one operation has reportedly began using a hydroelectric powerplant to power their mining efforts; and another operation in the Dalad Economic Development Zone of northern China has come to scale in an eight-building campus filled with over 25,000 computers creating over US$300,000 in new value each day (Pauw, 2017) and (Li & Marchi, 2017).
Unique to the process of mining cryptocurrency is the operating signature of server farms. Server farms, like the ones found in Dalad, have specific profile criteria that indicate a location is currently mining cryptocurrency. Unlike a normal operating environment where power ebbs and flows as user requirements dictate, a mining operation uses GPUs at maximum capacity both day and night. As a result, immense power consumption is needed on a consistent basis. Second, to support the high consumption of electricity, air conditioning and ventilation units are needed to keep the GPU systems cooled. Without this, bursts of hot air emit from the motherboards like solar flares and have become the leading cause of fires in crypto mines. Because air conditioning requirements grow the logistical footprint electrical signature of mining operations, some camps have turned to liquid cooling solutions. In these cases, non-conductive solutions are used to chill electronics that are hard at work in more confined spaces. Third, server farms may be large, but they have small overhead and require very little human capital to supervise their operations—in fact much of it can be done remotely. Low foot traffic into a location suspected of mining indicates automation and hardware; high foot traffic may indicate managed software and analytical solutions.
To combat the need for large server farms consuming enormous amounts of electricity, some organizations have embraced a decentralized model to scale mining operations. Distributed computational infrastructure provides many advantages to the user to the user. First, it allows a major mining operation to blend in to normal energy requirements on the grid because machines powering the operations are dispersed. Second, it creates a pool of physically separated assets that are all working to achieve the same mission. Third, willing participants can lend their computer’s processing power to a centralized command enabling people who lack the physical or financial means to support mining operations to support the production of it with their computer. And last, distributed infrastructure is useful in obfuscating the true benefiter of the mining because infrastructure can be bought, rented, hired, lent, or stolen.
Perhaps most compelling, is the remote activation and use of one’s computational infrastructure. At the University of California—Berkeley a program called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) was initiated in the early 2000’s and aims to support volunteer and grid computing through an open-source middleware system. Volunteers can download software to their computers allowing unused processing power and memory to be remotely controlled by research programs supporting causes the volunteers cared about such as climate change, astrophysics, cryptography, biochemistry, and gaming.
Threat actors have taken note of this technique, and thus Trojan viruses were created that can dictate the neural control of a target computer, enabling the threat actor to build a mesh network of “bots” to be commanded remotely. These botnet viruses can use a target computer’s excess processing power, like at night when its owner is sleeping. During these downtimes, the target computer may be communicating with its command node located overseas, for example in Russia or China. In the same vein, threat actors may clandestinely advertise malware to sympathetic parties in target western diasporas, enabling material support of terror or criminal activities while maintaining plausible deniability of the user. Borrowed infrastructure serves as a legitimate substitute for donations of time or money in support of a threat actor’s cause. The use of distributed computational infrastructure, either known or unknown to the user themselves, is a unique tool in the kit of threat actors.
But why steal computational processing power, or implicate your base supporters in a crime by taking their infrastructure as a donation, if one can simply buy terabytes of space for only a few dollars? Even excess infrastructure found in monthly contracts with commercial web services can be resold. Having the ability to monitor the digital exhaust of these services without breaching privacy laws set in place enable legitimate business activity is a force multiplier for law enforcement and intelligence professionals—a task perhaps for machine learning (Ford, 2015).
Decentralization and the Trust Economy
Distributed infrastructure is the manifestation of a broader societal preference for decentralization, which is on the rise. Blockchain technology like Ripple allow for an individual or entity to generate an escrow agent for financial and data transactions between two parties, end-to-end transparency (or trust) is the connecting file in an international remittance, not a bank (CryptoNinjas, 2017). In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and institutional divestment from subprime housing loans which shattered trust in those who command the banking system, decentralization through blockchain has empowered individuals and organizations to act in their own self-interest. Whether executing a transaction in the form of a shipment of goods from India to the Philippines, or simply buying concert tickets online, the key to the decentralization-enabled trust economy is people choosing to use it. The more people who use a cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies, the greater its integrity becomes.
Several progressive iterations of blockchain are being created appropriately named Blockchain 2.0 or 3.0 or 4.0. Each new application of blockchain uses a decentralized trust system—first with coin currency, then to assets, then to intangible assets, and eventually the conversion of Rousseau’s social contract into Bitnation—or membership in a digitized global citizenry where Governance 2.0 is used. Intangible assets are particularly interesting because it represents value of something that does not physically exist such as patents, trademarks, business models, and brand reputation. In fact, intangible assets can be created, like the recording of one’s network over a 30-year business career, and when applying unique hashes that represent the value of this asset, the value can then be divided, leveraged, or borrowed against (Cameron-Huff, 2017). The opportunities for how public and private sector alike will use blockchain technologies to record, transfer, and accept value are endless; built upon trust through decentralization, citizens have agency once again—cogito ergo sum.
Policy Recommendations to Strengthen US Government Response to Blockchain Technologies
As this study has highlighted, emergent technologies have significantly altered the landscape of both formal and informal value transfer systems. Adversaries will continue to find ways to push the envelope and leverage new tools at their disposal. As new commercial technologies are introduced to the market, novel TTPs will be developed to exploit the capability. It is critical the US Government continue to monitor and protect against emergent technologies, this can be achieved in a few ways:
- National: Enact permissive regulatory structure to survey use and manipulation of cryptocurrencies. The Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 was passed to formally criminalize laundering operations of organized crime in the US. Prior to this legislation, infamous mafia bosses like Al Capone were convicted simply of tax evasion. Though the 1970’s saw the enactment of several laws aimed at curtailing laundering operations, they were a piecemeal solution at best. Similarly, cryptocurrencies are currently being used by state and non-state actors for value creation in both direct and indirect support of terror operations. The US Government should treat digital currency as a security, subjecting it to traditional KYC/AML laws and oversight. Without this measure in place, normal economic activity in may be inadvertently supplying material support to enemies of the state and damaging the integrity of the capitalist system.
- Strategic: Authority to execute offensive cyber operations should be delegated to the Combatant Commanders. In February of 2017 Admiral Mike Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of the US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), characterized offensive cyber capabilities as being “treated almost like nuclear weapons” noting that it is the President of the United States who retains the authority to execute offensive cyber campaigns alone (Freeberg, 2017). In large part, the proliferation of offensive cyber tools has made the targeting of US critical infrastructure, particularly financial services, significantly easier for adversaries. Additionally, cyber-attacks have complicated the process of linking non-state actor to state sponsored activities. A rapid and proportional response is required by the US. Though the power and devastating effect of malware on state systems should not be underestimated, it important for the US to actively define uses of offensive cyber warfare to enable operational and tactical levels units to respond. Endowing the Combatant Commander with the agency to launch offensive cyber operations against adversaries will allow a decentralized response to combat a dynamic threat—a capability needed to respond to cryptocurrency manipulation writ large.
- Strategic: Build futurist groups to conduct technology sensing on US military installations. Each of the armed services select high performing officers to fill academic research positions at top national security think-tanks in Washington D.C. Those programs have proven themselves useful in preparing future General Officers for the politically savvy environment of our nation’s Capital. In conjunction with this successful program, the Department of Defense should also build futurist groups at each of the Combatant Commands to focus on emerging political, economic, technological, and military issues as they relate to the Command’s specific area of responsibility. Over the horizon technology and issue sensing in each of the geographic and industry areas covered by Combatant Commands ought to focus 5 to 15 years in the future. The intent of these groups is to cross-pollinate academics with military leadership on US military bases—not at locations within the beltway. The futurist groups should strive to build an ecosystem capable of attracting the top post-doctoral candidates for training and recruitment into both US Government positions and collegiate-level teaching positions. The interdisciplinary nature of this robust intellectual body will more acutely marry Command-specific mission requirements with serious thinkers breaking into their respective fields.
- Operational: Create a culture of innovation at the lowest level possible. It is no secret that the Department of Defense has sought to build a culture of innovation within its ranks for many years. With groups like the Defense Innovation Unit eXperimental (DIUx) and many others, DOD has successfully implemented long-term institutional pillars to engage the commercial sector. To compliment these organization and drive innovation at the small unit leadership level, establishing and funding “makerspaces” on US military bases would prove useful in keeping a thumb on the pulse of rapidly emerging technologies like cryptocurrencies. Programs like on-base autobody garages stocked with shop tools should pivot to be modeled after the increasingly popular makerspace common working areas found nationwide (sometimes called hackerspaces). Stocked with public computer systems, 3D printers, carpentry and machine shop tools, gaming consoles, and the supplies required to break apart, build, or modify electronic devices, on-base makerspaces should be locations that inspire creation and out of the box thinking. The end state is simple: let Lance Corporals innovate and find creative solutions to their obstacles in the field.
Responding to Emerging Technologies Requires Persistent Study of Strategic Culture
The phrase strategic culture is a doctrinal term in the study of international security policy used to describe the ethnic assumptions and social underpinnings of a nation’s character that may influence the way that its policymakers develop, evaluate, and execute national security decisions. In the United States, a clear example of strategic culture is seen in the average citizen’s sense of agency and freewill, imbued into everyday life over years of shared developmental experiences such as childhood, education, economy, and so forth. As a result, the average American citizen accepts and appreciates “free security… liberal idealism and views war as a discontinuation of policy” (Mahnken, 2016, p. 4). Even within the most structured segments of society like the US military, citizens-turned-servicemembers carry a pre-reflective sense of agency and appreciation for original thought allowing the decision-making to be delegated to the lowest level possible. The very fact that all American warfighters have the freewill to decide based on real-time information exemplifies the permeation of US strategic culture in defense policy; from the strategic to the tactical level, from maneuver warfare doctrine to decentralized small unit leadership in a firefight.
Strategic culture may knowingly, or unknowingly, signal a state’s most likely course of action in a given situation (Custer). It is imperative that the US national security apparatus conduct studies on how strategic culture from all corners of the world may influence the use of new technologies by competitors and adversaries. Robust comparative political analysis utilizing anthropologic and ethnographic research methods must be favored over grand universalist frameworks that seek to apply scientific methodologies to achieving heuristic neutrality across culture (Farago, 2014). For the US Government to understand emerging adversarial TTPs with respect to technologies like cryptocurrency and blockchain, quantum computing, Internet of Nanosensors, CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, and artificial intelligence, they must do so in a manner informed by the incorporeal cultural logics that incentivize the competitor at their core (Biercuk & Fontaine, 2017) and (Garcia-Martinez). Future studies must consider the effects of strategic culture on tactical applications of new tech, like how it may be used to procure, fund, launder, or engage in gray space operations. Strategic culture must also be studied through an investment lens to learn how venture capital and private equity funds influence the American technological landscape that underwrites the US military’s capabilities. Arming the United States with the correct policies, directives, and practices to protect it from foreign influence during this time of rapidly emerging technologies is in a sense securing the integrity of the innovation economy for years to come.
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