According to contract documents provided to The Intercept, Coinbase, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States, is selling Immigrations and Customs Enforcement a set of features used to track and identify cryptocurrency users.
For $29,000, Coinbase sold a single analytics license to ICE in August 2021. The following month, the agency may have spent $1.36 million on software, but it was not clear what capabilities would be provided to the contentious Homeland Security Investigations division of the agency.
ICE now has access to a number of forensic features offered through Coinbase Tracer, the company’s intelligence-gathering tool, according to a new contract document obtained by Jack Poulson, director of the watchdog group Tech Inquiry, and shared with The Intercept (formerly known as Coinbase Analytics).
The blockchain is a distributed ledger of transactions that is essential to the use of cryptocurrencies, and Coinbase Tracer enables users in the public and private sectors to track transactions through it.
Even though blockchain ledgers are typically open to the public, the vast amount of data they contain can make it nearly impossible without the use of software tools to track the money from spender to recipient.
With the claims that Tracer can “investigate illicit activities including money laundering and terrorist financing” and “connect [cryptocurrency] addresses to real world entities,” Coinbase promotes it for use in both corporate compliance and law enforcement investigations.
The document, which was made available through a FOIA request, claims that ICE is now able to monitor transactions made using almost a dozen different digital currencies, including Bitcoin, Ether, and Tether.
The “Multi-hop link Analysis for incoming and outgoing funds” and the “Transaction demixing and shielded transaction analysis” are analytical features that give ICE insight into the transfers of these currencies and are intended to thwart strategies some cryptocurrency users use to conceal their transactions or launder money.
Provocatively, the contract also offers “Historical geo tracking data,” though it’s not clear what exactly this data entails or where it came from.
According to an email made available as a result of the FOIA request, Coinbase did not demand that ICE accept an End User License Agreement, a piece of standard legalese that places restrictions on what a customer can do with software.
Natasha LaBranche, a Coinbase spokesperson, pointed The Intercept to a statement on the company’s website that read, “Coinbase Tracer sources its information from public sources and does not use Coinbase user data.” when asked about the ICE contract and the data involved.
LaBranche declined to comment on the use of Coinbase Tracer by ICE or whether any restrictions were placed on it.
The IRS, Secret Service, and Drug Enforcement Administration are just a few of the government organizations to which Coinbase has recently made a concerted effort to promote its intelligence features. Coinbase’s vice president of global intelligence, John Kothanek, stated in testimony earlier this month that his company was eager to support Homeland Security.
Many cryptocurrency enthusiasts have been outraged by Coinbase’s government work, possibly due to the community’s long-standing libertarian streak as well as the fact that these currencies are frequently used to facilitate various forms of fraud.
The Coinbase Tracer tool was born in the midst of controversy. According to Motherboard, Neutrino, a blockchain-analysis firm acquired by the company to create Coinbase Tracer, was “founded by three former employees of Hacking Team, a controversial Italian surveillance vendor that was caught several times selling spyware to governments with dubious human rights records, such as Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.”
Following a backlash from the public, Coinbase declared that these employees would “transition out” of the business.
In addition to assisting with migrant raids and deportation operations, Homeland Security Investigations, the ICE division that bought the Coinbase tool, is tasked with broader transnational crimes, including various types of financial offenses.
It’s not yet clear why ICE will use Coinbase. A comment from the agency was not immediately available.