Crime of the (new) century

Here’s something that I’m surprised we don’t see more of. Pavel Lerner, the CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange Exmo Finance, has been released by kidnappers after the payment of a $1 million bitcoin ransom. According to the Financial Times, the Ukrainian interior minister specifically labelled the crime “bitcoin kidnapping and extortion”. I would have asked for Monero, rather than traceable bitcoins, but there you go.

Given the number of Bitcoin millionaires wandering around — I bump into them at every conference I go to these days — you would have imagined that the more enterprising and forward thinking members of the cosa nostra (the coder nostra, as I call them) were out in force. Stand around outside Consensus or Money2020 and bundle most anyone into a van and drive them off into the desert and you’re sure of a Bitcoin, Ripple, Ether or Bitcoin Cash payday. It’s a puzzle that this doesn’t happen all the time, although it’s entirely possible that it does and that I never get to hear about it because I’m not rich enough, just like those Silicon Valley sex parties.

So is kidnapping for cyber-ransom the defining crime of the 21st century? Actually, I suspect not. What if, rather than traditional money–related crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, there were much better crypto-crimes invented in parallel to the new forms of crypto-money made available by technology? Is there such a crime that is unique to this virtual world? Not a virtual shadow of a crime that has been around since year zero, but a wholly new crime for the virtual world? Actually, one such crime was invented many years ago. It’s the “assassination market” that I wrote about in “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin“.

An assassination market is a prediction market where any party can place a bet (using anonymous crypto-currency through the TOR network) on the date of death of a given individual, and collect a payoff if they “guess” the date accurately. This would incentivise the assassination of specific individuals because the assassin, knowing when the action would take place, could profit by making an accurate bet on the time of the subject’s death.

Here’s how the market works. Someone runs a public book on the anticipated death dates of public figures. If I hate a pop star or politician, I place a bet on when they will die. When the person dies, who ever had the closest guess wins all of the money, less a cut for the house. Let’s say I bet a fiver that a specific TV personality is going to die at 9am on April Fool’s Day 2018. Other people hate this personality too and they put down bets as well. The more hated the person is, the more bets there will be.

April Fool’s Day comes around. There’s ten million quid bet on this particularly personality. I pay a hit man five million quid to murder the personality. Hurrah! I’ve won the bet, so I get the ten million quid and give half to the hit man. I don’t have to prove that I was responsible for the assassination to get the money and no-one can pin the crime on me because I paid the hitman in untraceable anonymous electronic cash as well: I’m just the lucky winner of the lottery. If someone else had bet 31st March and murdered the television personality themselves the day before, then it would only have cost me a fiver, and I would have regarded that as a fiver well spent.

This is a rather an old idea that originated, as far as I know, with Jim Bell, who back in 1995 wrote an essay on “assassination politics” that brought the idea to the popular (well, amongst a nerd subgroup) imagination. I suppose it was inevitable that the arrival of digital currency would stimulate thought experiments in this area and it was interesting to me then (and now) because it showed the potential for innovation around digital money even in the field of criminality. If I hire thugs to lure a cryptobaron to a hotel room and then beat him up to get a $1m in bitcoins from him (as actually happened in Japan recently), that’s just boring old extortion. If I use Craigslist to lure a HODLer to a street corner and then pull a gun on him and force him to transfer his bitcoins to me (as actually happened in New York back in 2015), that’s just boring old mugging.

 

Now, as I explained in the FT some years ago, Bitcoin is not a very good choice for this sort of cyber-criminality. It’s just not anonymous enough for really decent crimes or the darkest darknets. Hence my scepticism about the claims that Bitcoin’s long term value will be determined by malevolent money mischief. But as I explained to students at Winchester College last week, if there were to be an actually untraceable cryptocurrency then an assassination market is a much better bet for the coder nostra than the physically demanding felony of kidnapping.

They are where the money isn’t

When most of us think about bank robbery, we think about people inventing complex derivates and amassing fortunes while the institutions that house them amass fine, bankruptcies and bailouts. But it turns out that your grandparent’s bank robberies are coming back into fashion. American Banker says that violent bank crime has become increasingly less common in the past decade, but that the rate of robberies has ticked back up in recent years.

At first I thought this might be a hipster revolt, like with vinyl records, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So I’ve no idea. I don’t understand bank robbery. I remember getting into an interesting discussion about bank robbery at a lunch a while back. We were talking about risk and risk analysis. I was trying to make some points about why proper risk analysis like this is a more cost-effective way to proceed than (for example) panicking about newspaper stories on hacking, and that led to a train of thought around cost-benefit analysis for the robber, not the bank. Are robbers put off by thick doors and barred windows and such like? Are robbers deterred by visible, physical symbols of security? Come to that, should be bother with physical security at all in banks?

This is a fair point. So it set me thinking: if you are an amoral sociopath desperate to amass as much money as possible, are you better off robbing a bank or working for it? As a responsible father, I want to help my sons chart the best course for life. Right now, they are at University studying socially useful subjects in science and engineering. Having myself studied science only to become trapped in mortgage serfdom and forced to work until I drop, I am trying to persuade them to become Somali pirates or Wolves of Wall Street, without much success so far. So I understand that side of the equation, but am less certain of the other. Remember that old paper “The Decision-Making Practices of Armed Robbers” by Morrison and O’Donnell. It’s a study of armed robbery in London and one of my favourite papers. It is based on first-hand research (viz, the analysis of over 1,000 police reports and interviews with 88 incarcerated armed robbers).

While it’s about the UK rather than the US, I’m sure the thought processes of the perpetrators must have some similarities. Crucially, the paper notes that “almost all of these robbers evaluated the offence as having been financially worthwhile (aside from the fact that they were eventually caught and punished for their crime)”. So robbing a bank seems like good idea, if you exclude the possibility (in fact, the likelihood) of being caught. I suppose this is standard Jordan Belfort, Bernie Madoff thinking thought isn’t it? Unless people believe they will be caught (and these people don’t) then they only consider the upside.

(One of the interesting snippets it contains is that a great many of the armed robbers in the UK use imitation firearms even though they could have access to real ones. I imagine that in the US the use of imitations is vastly less prevalent, since it’s presumably harder to buy an imitation gun than a real one there.)

So, what to do? While glancing back over the paper I note that the authors say that it doesn’t seem practical to “expect financial institutions and commercial properties to reduce counter cash much more than they already have”. That may have been true when the paper was written a few years ago, but it clearly isn’t true now, since both bank branches and businesses in many countries are becoming cash free. And this is a good thing, because as we all know there is a direct and measurable relationship between the amount of cash out there (more on this later) and the amount of crime. As the paper says, “even when the amount of money obtained was quite small (an element often touted in support of the irrationality of economic criminals), it must be recognised that even apparently small sums may be adequate for the offender’s immediate needs. Hence, gains may be subjectively much larger than they appear”.

Bank robber or management consultant?

 

It’s a stick up

The rewards of armed robbery seem to me, then, as an educated middle-class professional, to be rather low. Yet they are still sufficient to attract the robbers, because their needs are immediate and limited. I want a holiday home in the South of France but the guy in the Nixon mask isn’t robbing a bank to pay his way through college or to obtain seed finance for a start up, he just needs to buy a car or some drugs or whatever. This paper seems, then, to indicate that so long as there is some cash in the till, there will be robberies. This is not an observation confined to banking. A study of the American Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program found that “the EBT program had a negative and significant effect on the overall crime rate as well as burglary, assault, and larceny”.

What they are talking about here are US programmes where benefit recipients are paid electronically and given cards that they can use in shops instead of being given cash. The authors found a 10% drop in crime correlated with the switch to EBT. It seems pretty overwhelming evidence, and even more so if you read the paper, which notes no impact on crimes that do not involve the acquisition of cash. If we can to stop armed robberies, that would surely be an excellent social benefit to the move to cashlessness and would help us to explain the nature of appropriate regulation to legislators.

But back to the specific point about the relationship between bank cash and robberies. With the rewards from robbing banks and businesses falling  armed robbers, like everyone else, follow the money – literally – and so cash-in-transit (CIT) robberies are now the preferred option. We see the same in Europe where countries that have much higher usage of ATMs have much higher CIT robbery rates than countries that have lower ATM usage (see, for example, Sweden and Denmark).

Overall, then, we see another early indication of the emerging post-cash era: Spending on physical bank security is being reduced and spending on virtual bank security is being increased. We do, indeed, live in interesting times.