By Guest Contributor Alec Harris
Gold, guns, diamonds, bonds, cash, and Bitcoin. If you have bearer assets, assets where custody equals ownership, then you should also be very interested in personal privacy. Admittedly, I’m kind of a one note band, so I think everyone should be interested in personal privacy. In the case of bearer assets though, losses tend to be permanent, and recourse is limited so the bearer is responsible for safeguarding. Sound like a lot of responsibility? It is. It’s called sovereignty and it’s a feature, not a bug.
My money is safe though, it’s in the bank.
How Safe Is Your Money?
In the US that’s generally a reasonable assumption. The US Government doesn’t need to steal your money. It will just inflate it away and act like it’s a favor. In other parts of the world citizens deal with varying degrees of capital controls, (limiting the movement of money, especially across borders), and bail-ins (where banks use depositor funds as creditors of last resort as occurred in Cyprus to depositors with more than 100,000 Euro). In either case, the lesson is that unless it’s a bearer asset and unless you have full control of it, it’s not really yours. Remember George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life?
In crypto we say, “Not your keys, not your coins” but custody is king for any bearer asset.
The core Bitcoin community tends to be two things: fiercely independent and highly vocal. How do you know if someone is into Bitcoin? Don’t worry, they will tell you.
This sets up a certain paradox. Bitcoin is the ultimate bearer asset given that a single digital key is all that’s required to demonstrate ownership, just ask
Satoshi Nakamoto Craig Wright. But, if stolen, that same key is almost irrecoverable and no one can intervene on the dominion of the purloined keys new owner. Combine that with the fact that many Bitcoiners are desperate to tell you about Bitcoin and it sets up a perfect crime. Find a Bitcoiner, (easy), and steal their Bitcoin, (permanent). Let’s just say that you aren’t a crypto Twitter celebrity, and this isn’t your laptop
And this isn’t your car
How then, should the average Bitcoiner, who isn’t obnoxiously painting a target on their back, think about privacy from the perspective of protecting their bearer asset? The answer is simple but manifesting it is at least somewhat challenging and even more so, time consuming.
How to Protect Your Bitcoin (Bearer Asset)
You, my Bitcoin friend, need to disassociate your digital identity from your physical identity. One way to do this is operating under alias. The obvious example is Satoshi but alias is common in the crypto world e.g. Monero core devs TacoTime & NoodleDoodle or Mimblewimble code author(s) Tom Elvis Jedusor. The use of an alias is a good way to separate out digital identity but for the most part it’s not very useful unless you want to go through life in Jason Bourne-esq isolation. The real alchemy is in using your true name but separating it from your physical identity.
Warning, the very fabric of American society runs contrary to the privacy mechanisms described below. Arguably privacy is part of the American ethos, but somehow it slipped out of our culture. You can’t get a discount on bananas in America without giving out your name, address, and phone number. Or so the banana cartels would have you think.
It turns out there’s a difference between a request for your personal information and a demand, though. A lot of services will act like they need your name and home address, but it turns out you can order food to your home without giving someone your real name and you can register for the neighborhood fun run without giving your real address. Depending on how much of a total nuisance I feel like being I’ll fill out an entire personal data form with just my first name and see if it goes over. I’m great at parties. The goal is always singular, however. If someone needs to know my name, they can’t have my address and if someone needs my address, they can’t have my name. This is achievable, but it requires tenacity.
The only way this works is if you can live somewhere without tying the address to your name. There are some tricks to doing this if your home is already attributed to your name but the best way to achieve home address privacy is to move and start fresh. When you move you need to have some kind of privacy structure set up to be the lease holder or property owner at your new address. Leasing will be harder since it will be up to the landlord whether to go along with your absurd shenanigans but fortunately you can still buy property anonymously, in the US at least.
You’ll need a privacy trust or privacy LLC and the entity will need its own email address, phone number, and payment mechanism. The how of setting those things up is a longer discussion but think registered agents, nominee directors, burner phones and non-personal payment tools as opposed to your cell phone, “The My Family Name Trust”, and Amex. The tricks of the privacy trade are barely different from the criminal playbook so if you feel shady you are likely doing it right.
Once you live somewhere that doesn’t bind to your name, you’ll need to think carefully about all of your habits until you get used to the new private life. You can’t use your old Amazon account, you’ll have to pay for all your utilities privately, your Postmates and Uber will have to come to a house down the street or you’ll have to set up new accounts no longer in your name. Just for a day, try to notice everything you do that is somehow linked to your name and address. All of your mail, all of your credit card swipes, everything you do on your phone, vendors, neighbors, cars, internet traffic, all of it links your name to your home address if you let it. For the first two to three months in your new home expect to spend time every day resetting something. It becomes tedious but if you can get to the other side you will effectively be giving the middle finger to the privacy eroding, data sucking, commoditizing machine that we’ve become in America today.
How bad is it? Take one example, the data broker Acxiom. It collects 50 trillion (yes, trillion) unique data points per year. It has profiles on 97% of all Americans each of which has 1,500 profile categories like “health” or “race” or “investment portfolio” (Marc Goodman, Future Crimes). In the Newlywed Game, Acxiom would beat all the husbands and all the wives. Now multiply Acxiom by 75 since there are at least that many data aggregators in just the U.S., and you will start to appreciate the awesome scope of commercial data collection.
The NSA wakes up every day wishing it had that kind of data. Well, not sure if they wake up or power on, but the NSA could stand to take a page out of the data broker playbook since we volunteer information to the data brokers with all of our Farmville, Gmail, and online dating profiles whereas the suckers at the NSA still have to go out and collect it. Now that you have an address that doesn’t have your name, your name needs an address that isn’t where you live. The best option is also very expensive: buy another property as your mailing address, in your true name, in the same county where you actually live but in a different town and zip code. I have worked with people who do this. For the rest of us who don’t have six figures to burn on a mailing address, try a Commercial Mail Receiving Address (CMRA) which is a fancy way of saying a UPS Store.
For a mere tens of dollars a year you can rent a mailbox with a real enough sounding address at a UPS store and use that as your “public” address. Guess what? It won’t be convenient. For one thing, you need to pick a CMRA that is not in the same town where you actually live, duh. Also, CMRA addresses sometimes get rejected by certain types of forms. The DMV won’t accept a CMRA address nor can you register to vote using a CMRA. Are there ways around that? Yes. Will I tell you what they are? No. I’m taking a break from giving advice that weighs privacy above legality. But, there are ways.
If this sounds like a lot of grief to achieve a modicum of privacy, I agree. Maybe the principal of it isn’t worth it to you. Splitting your digital and physical identity is hard. Expect to put 100 hours into it in your first 3-4 months. Expect it to cost money too. Expect people to roll their eyes at you. Expect every merchant interaction to be somewhat of a charade. Most importantly, expect to get tired and frustrated. You’ll want to quit at some point. I did. If you can get your privacy structures in place and learn to sustain them, though, everything becomes almost simple on the other side.
Think of it like living without a microwave. For a little while you’d gripe about having to warm things up using fire like we did since Silurian humans discovered it 420 million years ago. But eventually you would get used to it. I did some research, and it turns out there are people still alive today who grew up without a microwave. If you can find someone over the advanced age of 40 you can ask them about it. Somehow, they survived.
If, however, you value your sovereignty, if you manage your own keys, if your home is your citadel, if your HOA’s Lawn and Garden Committee won’t let you build an actual moat, make privacy your first line of defense instead. Consider putting privacy on par with other home security considerations. You don’t have to spend as much on locks if your adversary can’t find the front door.
Alec Harris is the Managing Partner for Halo Privacy, “Delivering elegant solutions to unique problems”.