“Enlightened rulers and good generals who are able to obtain intelligent agents as spies are certain for great achievements.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Journalists working with Edward Snowden came under fire last year under allegations of selling out to corporations and government interests, withholding documents leaked by Snowden that implicated corporations like PayPal in mass surveillance schemes. Critics suggested that Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras had been included in a $250 Million business partnership with PayPal’s CEO as hush money to keep damning evidence held by Greenwald and Poitras out of the public eye. Subsequent investigations into these allegations turned up a number of chilling comments made by National Security Agency insiders and experts.
“The NSA has had the cooperation of major financial institutions, including credit card companies, to obtain all financial transactions of these companies’ clients-international and domestic. Further, the NSA not only obtains and stores the financial data of Americans and foreigners, but it also shares them with other government agencies such as the FBI and DEA.” — William Binney, former top NSA official
“For NSA, information from financial institutions such as PayPal is equally if not more valuable and sought after than that obtained from social media and other software companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google. […] I wouldn’t doubt the existence of evidence and documents implicating corporations such as PayPal within the large cache obtained by Edward Snowden. The partnership and data collection arrangements have existed for many years.” — Russell Tice, former NSA Intelligence Analyst and Capabilities Operations Officer
Outside critics of government financial surveillance agree:
“Government access to financial transactions has always been top priority for all government agencies, worldwide. Nothing is more important to governments than where the money is, especially money for taxation required to avoid death-stake in the heart of governments. So it is consistent that NSA (and other spies) have access to all on- and off-line financial services providers. As you know, financial services are required to cooperate with their governments, perhaps second only to defense industries, perhaps first due to the need to track worldwide arms sales. Control of arms means control of wealth, and nothing is more appreciated by the few wealthy to offload arms cost to millions of taxpayers.” — John Young, Cryptome.org
You can read more about PayPal surveillance scandal here.
Financial corporations like PayPal have not only been supporting government surveillance of their customer’s finances, but also participating in blockades. In 2011, PayPal froze donations to WikiLeaks under pressure from the federal government. Not long after, they cancelled an account for a Chelsea Manning support fund, before a trial to judge her alleged war crime whistleblowing activities ever took place.
While some corporations take strategic advantage of these surveillance partnerships, others are merely held hostage by hostile governments with expectations of cooperation. In a recent blog post entitled, “Can any software from the United States be safe?” Monetas CTO Chris Odom explained the fears that motivated him to move his company and family from Texas to Switzerland. Odom cites threats to Yahoo CEOs for imprisonment and the coerced shutdown of Lavabit’s encrypted mail service as examples of how companies based in the US are forced to become part of the government’s surveillance apparatus.
As much as Bitcoin shows great promise in returning financial privacy to the consumer, threats to US companies remain a potent risk to Bitcoin’s promise in this realm, given how many important Bitcoin corporations remain under the umbrella of the US government. Coinbase, BitPay, Circle, and Cryptsy — just to name a few — are all US-based companies that collect sensitive financial data about Bitcoin-using consumers. Based on the clear evidence of willing collusion of corporations like PayPal, and the reluctant cooperation of others like Yahoo, consumers should assume that these companies are providing sensitive, privacy-damaging information about their customers to the surveillance state.
It’s up to cypherpunks to create the next generation of privacy friendly solutions to free us from this shadow. We need better anonymity protections in crypto-currency software, and decentralized exchanges to make surveillance less effective and far more expensive. Similarly, it’s up to Bitcoin users to protect their privacy to the best of their abilities by consuming privacy education resources and then practicing these newfound skills.
The Bitcoin Privacy Newsletter contains new posts and Bitcoin privacy tips from Kristov Atlas every week. Sign up and receive discounts on purchases of the Anonymous Bitcoin book.