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Senate holds hearing on the role of digital assets in illicit finance

Federal Issues Digital Assets Fintech Senate Banking Committee Financial Crimes Blockchain

Federal Issues

On March 17, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee held a hearing titled “Understanding the Role of Digital Assets in Illicit Finance” to consider the risks crypto technology and digital assets pose for consumers and the financial system. The Committee heard from several witnesses, including FinCEN’s Former Acting Director, Deputy Director/Digital Innovation Officer Michael Mosier, who stressed that policymakers should focus on finding a balance that does not only “chase bad actors but also prevents exploitation of the vulnerable from the start.” Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) opened the hearing by explaining that the “dollar has safeguards to protect against crime and illicit activity” because companies dealing in real money “are required to know their customers, and report suspicious transactions.” In contrast, digital assets “make it easier for money launderers to use webs of transactions across the globe to cover their tracks” and hinders law enforcement agencies’ ability to trace illicit funds. Brown cautioned that “lax rules and little oversight” are providing bad actors more opportunities to “hide and move money in the dark” using cryptocurrency. He stressed, however, that President Biden’s recent executive order, which outlined a coordinated approach to digital asset innovation (covered by InfoBytes here), will “drive progress on this issue” and “jumpstart a coordinated strategy from law enforcement and regulators to fight bad actors who want to use crypto.” Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA) took a different view, noting that the “traceable nature of many cryptocurrencies” can also support the detection and prevention of illicit crime, which is “a factor making [cryptocurrency] terribly risky to utilize for criminal purposes.” He also expressed concerns that the lack of regulatory clarity surrounding digital assets has driven innovation abroad.

Witnesses provided various recommendations designed to, among other things, reduce the risk of sanctions evasion through digital assets, as well as improve detection, disruption, and deterrence of the illicit use of digital assets. While one witness stated that “transparency of blockchains enhances the ability of policymakers and law enforcement to detect, disrupt, and ultimately, deter illicit activity,” another witness cautioned that “[e]ven with the latest blockchain analytics, investigations can take years to complete,” particularly because “prosecutors must demonstrate that an identifiable person is behind the criminal activity.”

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