While we at The Merkle have talked ourselves blue in the face stating that Bitcoin is not inherently a criminal asset, sometimes criminals do use it. However, dedicated blockchain analysts can make connections between wallet addresses and identifying information in order to track payments and unmask nefarious individuals. The latest technique in this regard is an AI that scours the Bitcoin blockchain to find and help victims of sex trafficking.
Bitcoin can Link Criminals to Crimes
The use of most cryptocurrencies for illicit activities has always baffled me a bit. Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies are pseudonymous not anonymous. This means that there is a direct, public link between the criminal and the illegal transaction. Hiding funds and information used to mean using mixers and similar services, but those are rarer than ever. Still, some individuals use Bitcoin as a medium for illegal transactions.
Knowing the nature of the blockchain, University of California at Berkeley’s Rebecca Portnoff helped develop an AI that follows the connections on the Bitcoin blockchain to find and help sex trafficking victims. The AI itself identifies suspicious sex advertisements placed on Backpage, a website listing ads for sex services among other things, via a machine learning algorithm. Once these have been identified, the AI uses the public payment information on the blockchain to help identify and track down the individuals who placed those ads. While the site used to accept credit cards, it now only allows payments in Bitcoin. That leaves anyone operating illegally on the site exposed to blockchain scouring analysts and software.
To learn which ads are suspicious, the AI takes many things into account. The way in which ads are written, their styles, and their designs all can be tells of those who created and posted these ads. Similarly written or designed ads are grouped together by the AI, and that data feedback helps the AI learn and become more effective. Corresponding addresses on the blockchain associated with payments for these ads help solidify the case against traffickers.
Supporting evidence against criminals on this site is easy to come by. Ads are timestamped, the ads themselves include contact information, and the blockchain provides immutable evidence of payment for services. Bitcoin inherently betrays criminals by providing information leading to their downfall.
Bitcoin for a Better Future
While I am happy that Bitcoin and its technology is helping identify and stop criminals, I realize that many still feel Bitcoin itself enables crime. I argue that this technology is neither morally good or bad, but its moral worth is influenced by its userbase. In the same way someone can use fiat cash to facilitate crimes, Bitcoin can be used nefariously as well. However, the difference is that one form of money can be tracked easily whereas the other is very difficult to follow.
Some may take issue with Bitcoin being pseudonymous rather than anonymous, but I believe that this is one of its saving graces. It allows for the opportunity to track down bad actors who use it, and also helps us transact in a more trustless manner. Bitcoin and its blockchain can help make a better future for all of us.
I look forward to following the developments of this AI project to help tackle the pressing issue of sex trafficking in today’s world.