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Norway’s digital currency project raises privacy questions

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The small Nordic country of Norway may not be particularly notable on the global crypto map. With its 22 blockchain solution providers, the nation doesn’t stand out even at the regional level. 

However, as the race to test and implement central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) accelerates every day, the Scandinavian nation is taking an active stance on its own national digital currency. In fact, it was among the first countries to begin the work on a CBDC back in 2016.

Dropping cash

In recent years, amid a rise in cashless payment methods and concern over cash-enabled illicit transactions, some Norwegian banks have moved to remove cash options altogether.

In 2016, Trond Bentestuen, then an executive at major Norwegian bank DNB, proposed to stop using cash as a means of payment in the country:

“Today, there is approximately 50 billion kroner in circulation and [the country’s central bank] Norges Bank can only account for 40 percent of its use. That means that 60 percent of money usage is outside of any control.”

A year before that, another large Norwegian bank, Nordea, also refused to accept cash, leaving only one branch in Oslo Central Station to continue handling cash.

This sentiment came in parallel with Bitcoin (BTC) enthusiasm, as DNB enabled its customers to buy BTC via its mobile app, local courts demanded that convicted drug dealers pay their fines in crypto, and local newspapers widely discussed investments in digital assets.

Recent: Bitcoin mining in a university dorm: A cooler BTC story

Last year Torbjørn Hægeland, executive director for financial stability at Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank, outlined to the project’s goal of replacing cash use in the country:

“With this background, the decline in cash use and other structural changes in the payment system are key drivers for the project.”

The experimental phase of the Norwegian CBDC will last until June 2023 and end with recommendations from the central bank on whether the implementation of a prototype is necessary.

Ethereum is the key 

In September 2022, Norges Bank released the open-source code for the Ethereum-backed digital currency sandbox. Available on GitHub, the sandbox is designed to offer an interface for interacting with the test network, enabling functions like minting, burning and transferring ERC-20 tokens.

However, the second part of the source code, announced to go public by mid-September, has yet to be revealed. As specified in a blog post, the initial use of open-source code was not a “signal that the technology will be based on open-source code,” but a “good starting point for learning as much as possible in collaboration with developers and alliance partners.”

Norges Bank in Oslo. Source: Reuters/Gwladys Fouche

Earlier, the bank revealed its principal partner in building the infrastructure for the project — Nahmii, a Norway-based developer of a layer-2 scaling solution for Ethereum of the same name. The company has been working on this scaling technology for Ethereum for several years and has its own network and tokens. At this point, the test network for the Norwegian CBDC uses not the public Ethereum ecosystem, but a private version of the enterprise blockchain Hyperledger Besu.

In late 2022, Norway became part of Project Icebreaker, a joint exploration with the central banks of Israel, Norway and Sweden on how CBDCs can be used for cross-border payments. Within its framework, the three central banks will connect their domestic proof-of-concept CBDC systems. The final report for the project is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023.

Local specifics, universal problems

In terms of hopes and fears, what defines the Norwegian CBDC project among others is the national regulatory context. Like its geographical neighbors, Norway is known for its cautious approach to the digital assets market, with high taxes and the relatively small scale of its domestic crypto ecosystem — a recent study by EU Blockchain Observatory estimated its total equity funding at a modest $26.9 million.

Norwegian serial entrepreneur Sander Andersen, who has recently moved his fintech company to Switzerland, doubts that the upcoming project will co-exist peacefully with the crypto industry. There are already more than enough problems for tech entrepreneurs in the country, he said in a chat with Cointelegraph:

“Despite the country’s strong infrastructure for entrepreneurs in other industries, such as low energy costs and free education, these benefits do not extend to the digital realm. The tax burden faced by digital companies makes it nearly impossible to compete with businesses based in more business-friendly jurisdictions.”

As central bank digital currencies have the potential to compete with private cryptocurrencies, and the goal of any government is to control financial transactions as tightly as possible, Andersen doesn’t see Norway among the exceptions:

“The Norwegian central bank’s CBDC project can also pose a threat to the legal status of private stablecoins in the country. The introduction of a CBDC may prompt increased regulation and oversight of private stablecoins, making it harder for these companies to operate.”

Speaking to Cointelegraph, Michael Lewellen, head of solutions architecture at OpenZeppelin, a company contributing its contracts library to the Norges Bank project, doesn’t sound so pessimistic. From a technical perspective, he emphasized, there is nothing stopping private stablecoins from trading and operating alongside CBDCs on both public and private Ethereum networks, especially if they use common, compatible token standards such as ERC-20. 

However, from a policy perspective, there’s nothing that can stop central banks from performing financial gatekeeping and enforcing the Know Your Customer (KYC) standards, and this is where the CBDC looks like a natural development. Banks will not sit idly by as the blockchain ecosystem grows, as there is a lot of shadow-banking activity happening on-chain, Lewellen specified, adding:

“CBDCs offer central banks the ability to better perform gatekeeping and enforce KYC rules on CBDC holders, whereas enforcing the same standards against entities using non-governmental stablecoins is far more challenging.”

Recent: Ava Labs and Amazon’s partnership could ‘expand the pie’ for blockchain

Could Norway’s CBDC offer anything reassuring in terms of users’ privacy? It’s hardly possible from both technological and strategic points of view, Lewellen said. Today, a mature solution doesn’t exist that would allow privacy in a compliant manner regarding the use of CBDCs.

Any national digital currency would almost certainly require every address to be linked to an identity, using KYC and other means we see in banks today. In fact, if done on the private ledger, like the one that Norges Bank is testing right now, the CBDC will offer not only less privacy for a single customer, but at the same time less public transparency with regard to blockchains.



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Regulation

FBI seizes $100K in NFTs from scammer following ZachXBT investigation

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FBI seizes $100K in NFTs from scammer following ZachXBT investigation


The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has seized two non-fungible tokens (NFTs) worth more than $100,000 and 86.5 Ether (ETH) from a reported phishing scammer.

The alleged scammer in question, Chase Senecal — known as Horror (HZ) online — was initially exposed via a lengthy investigation by independent blockchain sleuth ZachXBT posted back in September.

In the FBI’s official notification posted on Feb. 3, it outlined that Seneca’s property — which also included an Audemars Piguet (AP) Royal Oak Watch worth $41,000 — was “seized for federal forfeiture for violation of federal law.”

The FBI’s notification did not detail much other information on the ordeal apart from noting that all of the property was seized on Oct. 24. The specific NFTs include Bored Ape Yacht Club#9658, and Doodle #3114 and were valued at $95,495 and $9,361 at the time of seizure.

The 86.5 ETH was valued at $116,433 at the time of seizure, but is now worth $144,000 at the time of writing.

It is unclear what the full scope of legal proceedings that have taken place against Senecal are at this stage. However, according to the FBI’s law enforcement bulletin, federal forfeiture is a law enforcement tool that enables the government to “remove—without compensation for the individual—ownership of property involved in a crime.”

“It may occur in a civil procedure, like a lawsuit against the item, or after the conviction of an individual in a criminal trial,” the FBI states.

While the FBI has not come out with an official tip of the hat to ZachXBT, the on-chain sleuth noted via Twitter on Feb. 3 that the property seizure did “come as a result” of his investigation.

“I look forward to hopefully seeing more phishing scammers suffer a similar fate in the future for harming so many people in this space,” ZachXBT wrote.

With the seizure of a Bored Ape NFT, people in the community have joked that the FBI will change its profile picture to Ape #9658.

Photoshopped FBI profile pic: @CryptoWithNick on Twitter

Notably, the flashy AP watch was one of the key identifiers that helped ZachXBT unmask Senecal’s identity and on-chain activity during the investigation.

Related: Logan Paul and CryptoZoo hit with lawsuit as investors take action

In a medium post from Sept. 2, ZachXBT explained that after seeing Horroz (HZ) brag about the new watch on social media, he asked “around a few mutual friends who sell watches” and eventually managed to get in contact with the person who sold that specific AP watch to Senecal.

Unfortunately for Senecal, the payment was said to have been made on the blockchain via the use of USD Coin (USDC).

“The address HZ used to pay the watch seller $47.5k was DIRECTLY funded by multiple addresses used to scam people with hacked Twitter accounts such as @deekaymotion, @Zeneca_33, @ezu_xyz, [and] @JRNYclub,” ZachXBT wrote.

This is not the first time ZachXBT’s research has played a key role in helping government authorities. In October, France’s national cyber unit cited ZachXBT’s work in helping it catch and charge a group of alleged fraudsters on suspicion of stealing $2.5 million worth of NFTs via phishing scams.





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UK Treasury publishes consultation paper for upcoming crypto regulation

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The UK financial services sector wants to be a leader in crypto regulation.
The consultation paper addresses stablecoins, NFTs and ICOs.
There however won’t be a separate regulatory system for the crypto space according to the treasury.

His Majestry’s Treasury has published an extensive 80-page consultation paper for the much anticipated crypto regulation in the UK.

The paper covers a wide range of crypto topics ranging from the problems with algorithmic stablecoins to initial coin offerings (ICOs), and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). It contains proposals for the upcoming crypto regulations in the United Kingdom that aim to position the UK financial services sector at the forefront of crypto regulations globally.

Generally, hardline crypto control measures have been gaining momentum across the globe especially following the rate at which crypto firms and projects are collapsing taking with them billions of dollars of investors’ money. By setting up proper crypto regulation, the UK could soon become a hub for cryptocurrency projects.

No separate regulations for crypto

While publishing the consultation paper, the Treasury also announced that there shall not be a separate regulatory system for cryptocurrencies. The proposed crypto regulations will fall under UK’s Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA).

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will customize the existing FSMA’s rules to accommodate the digital assets market.

Once the crypto regulations are set into place, crypto market players will be required to register afresh despite having done that earlier under the FCA licensing regime. But contrary to the earlier regulatory regime, crypto firms will not be required to make regular market data reports although crypto exchanges will be required to keep the data and make it available anytime.

Also contrary to earlier speculations, the UK Treasury has decided not to ban algorithm stablecoins. It has instead categorized them as “unbacked crypto-assets” instead of stablecoins. As a result, crypto promotions will have to exclude the term “stable” when marketing the algorithmic stablecoins.



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US lawmakers renew request for answers from Silvergate on FTX: Report

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US lawmakers renew request for answers from Silvergate on FTX: Report



Several United States senators have reportedly penned a letter requesting answers from Silvergate Capital — the parent company of Silvergate Bank — related to the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX.

According to a Jan. 31 Bloomberg report, U.S. senators including Elizabeth Warren, Roger Marshall and John Kennedy said Silvergate had not fully answered questions in response to a December letter about its alleged role in handling FTX user funds. Silvergate reportedly cited restrictions on disclosing “confidential supervisory information” — a rationale the senators said was unacceptable.

“Both Congress and the public need and deserve the information necessary to understand Silvergate’s role in FTX’s fraudulent collapse, particularly given the fact that Silvergate turned to the Federal Home Loan Bank as its lender of last resort in 2022,” said the letter, according to Bloomberg.

Warren, Marshall and Kennedy signed their names onto a 2022 letter giving Silvergate until Dec. 19 to provide lawmakers answers on its involvement in the FTX debacle. However, the senators reportedly said the firm had left out crucial information necessary to determine Silvergate’s role in FTX’s alleged fraud, including whether it mishandled transferring FTX user assets to Alameda. 

Following the liquidity crisis and bankruptcy filing of FTX in November 2022 — and prior to the arrest of former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried — Warren and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on the Justice Department to investigate the collapse of the crypto exchange and consider prosecuting certain individuals. The recent letter gave Silvergate until Feb. 13 to submit a response, including on the company’s due diligence practices.

Related: Silvergate sold assets at loss and cut staff to cover $8.1B in withdrawals: Report

Members of Congress have been organizing for their 118th session after Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives were unable to come to an agreement to elect the next speaker for days, delaying committee assignments and legislation. Senators and House members conducted hearings exploring the downfall of FTX in December, with leadership suggesting at the time that the investigation would continue in 2023.



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