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Coinbase: Swapping Bitcoin Privacy for Banking Convenience

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By Jon Matonis
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I’ve always had this nagging feeling about Coinbase’s exchange service and I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

San Francisco startup receives praise for its simple method of
acquiring and selling bitcoins, a digital currency, via one’s U.S. bank
account. In fact, Coinbase, founded in June 2012, is now selling over $1 million worth of bitcoins per month. The firm apparently ran out of inventory last week.

it hit me. This is just like buying bitcoins from your bank – or from
the Internal Revenue Service. If a bank offered a bitcoin purchasing
option from its website, it would look like Coinbase. If Coinbase cut
them in on the commission, it could probably white-label the service
directly to banks.

wrong with that, but it means Coinbase fails to leverage the unique
financial privacy aspects of the Bitcoin network. I do not fault founder
and CEO Brian Armstrong, because he’s launched a much-needed Bitcoin
service at a critical point in the digital money’s evolution. Here’s the
rub: to address the fraud and compliance issues around the irreversible
sale of a privacy product, Coinbase has simply removed the privacy.

Currently, Coinbase provides its exchange service in the U.S. only and it offers two
methods for linking a bank account, “instant account verification” and
“challenge deposit verification.” For those who are uncomfortable
providing their private online banking usernames and passwords to
Coinbase, the alternate method offers a typical challenge deposit
process similar to linking a bank account to PayPal. (In challenge
verification, a company makes two small deposits to the user’s account,
and the user proves she is the accountholder by entering those amounts
into the company’s site.) Coinbase does not allow for other
less-intrusive payment methods, such as a cash deposit at a bank branch,
via an intermediary like TrustCash, or cash bill payment at a retail location, through a network like ZipZap.

(Coinbase also signs up merchants to accept bitcoin and landed Reddit as a client last week.)

is not licensed as a money transmitter in any state, nor is it
registered as a money services business with the U.S. Treasury’s
Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. I applaud the company for
dispensing with these formalities because, since it is only selling a
cryptographic token and not a financial instrument, such registration
and licensure is not legally required.

The company says
it has an anti-money laundering program, but it was not listed on their
web site, and again, it is not a legal requirement for this business.
Besides, the majority of what constitutes an AML program is already
covered via Coinbase’s strong relationship to the user’s financial
institution, with one of the exceptions being the identification of
aggregated transactions from multiple bank accounts. But even this would
be easy enough for Coinbase to determine based on the additional user
data collected.

According to its privacy policy,
Coinbase collects data about visitors to the site sent by their
computer or mobile phone (e.g. IP addresses) and device information
including but not limited to identifier, name and type, operating
system, location, mobile network information and standard web log
information. Those who sign up for the service may have to provide their
name, address, phone number, email address, and bank or credit card
numbers. Before using the service, customers may further have to give a
Social Security number or birthdate, and they are subject to credit
checks or identity verification by third parties.

there is no indication that Coinbase deletes the internal bitcoin wallet
transfer logs or the associated bitcoin address logs. With more
observable data points, the privacy of all bitcoin transactions can
become cumulatively degraded.

By criticizing the collection of
personal information for the purchase of bitcoin, a harmless
cryptography product, I am not simply “letting the perfect being the
enemy of the good.” Caution is strongly advised when dealing with
Coinbase. The potential exists for enhanced surveillance and network
traffic analysis enabled by the supreme identity management that comes
built-in with Coinbase. For instance, it would not be advisable to play
Bitcoin casino games or poker with Coinbase-acquired bitcoins that
weren’t properly “mixed.”

Of course, not everyone requires privacy
in their transactions, so Coinbase may suit some users’ purposes just
fine. However, Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin,
didn’t sit down and code the decentralized protocol
because he was upset about banking efficiency and trusted third
parties. He wrote Bitcoin as a value transfer system that could survive
hostile attacks.

When Armstrong says,
“our goal is to make [B]itcoin easier to use, and (longer term) to help
bring fast, cheap, international payments to the whole world” and
“Bitcoin represents a fundamental leap forward in payment technology and
it’s going to bring massive efficiencies to many areas of commerce,”
he’s playing only to the low-fee, frictionless attributes of Bitcoin. He
doesn’t mean that Coinbase’s goal is to facilitate payments for the anonymous and safe purchase of WordPress features in authoritarian countries or to bypass a politically-motivated blockade against WikiLeaks.

it comes to the financial privacy and censorship-resistant payment
attributes of Bitcoin, Coinbase falls short, and that, I think, is
likely to impede the startup’s growth. The firm seems not to care. Its
privacy policy states, “We may share your personal information with law
enforcement, government officials, or other third parties when we are
compelled to do so by a subpoena, court order or similar legal

When that time comes, you better believe that Coinbase will have a lot to share.


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