News: Signal goes worldwide with payments, IRS sets sights on NFTs, Bukele’s bad bets on BTC

Encrypted messaging app Signal made its new payments feature, which uses MobileCoin (MOB), available to the world in mid-November. Signal made no big announcement at the time, but the stories are coming out now. (Wired)

I wrote about MobileCoin back in April 2020 — and so did David Gerard — when Signal first announced the feature. MobileCoin was a side hustle for Signal creator Moxie Marlinspike. He was an advisor to the project and then got Signal to integrate the token.

I suspect Marlinspike was paid in MOB — advisors to crypto projects typically are paid in shitcoins — and is now looking to dump his bags. (My blog; David Gerard

Other messaging apps, like Whatsapp and Facebook, have payments built in. What sets Signal apart is it wants to combine end-to-end encryption in messaging and a cryptocurrency with privacy features designed to make any transactions anonymous.

That has Signal employees worried. They’re concerned anonymous payments will attract criminals and thus draw regulator scrutiny, ruining everything that’s good about Signal. Signal supporters warned Signal this was a terrible idea. Signal went ahead with its plans anyway. (Verge)

Anyone can use MobileCoin via the Signal mobile app to make payments — the directions are here. The problem is getting MOB to put in your wallet. MOB is listed on Bitfinex and FTX, but it’s not available to U.S. consumers. You would have to use a VPN to get around that. 

Marlinspike wrote a blog post about Web3 that’s gotten a lot of attention. (Fortune)

The story is good; he blasts Web3. However, in it, he says he was “never particularly drawn” to crypto. That’s not quite accurate. He simply put his crypto into his messaging app.

On Jan. 11, only a few days after word of Signal’s shitcoin hit the whirling blades of the fan, Marlinspike  stepped down as CEO of Signal — with no notice and no replacement. Executive chairman Brian Acton will serve as acting CEO until someone new is found. (Moxie’s blog post)

Signal, which was introduced in 2014, gets its support via donations. With 40 million active users, the project is now poised to transition into a sustainable and profitable model, so it will be telling to see who steps in to take over.

In the meantime, Signal supporters are losing confidence in the app.  

Nicholas Weaver, an infosec expert and staff researcher at UC Berkeley, says that even by shitcoin standards, MobileCoin is “high on the fraud factor.” (Twitter Thread).​​

MobileCoin’s primary privacy mechanism is that the ledger runs inside the SGX enclave (a separate and encrypted region on the Intel chip for code and data), which means privacy rests entirely on the hardware — not the blockchain. You have to trust the nodes in the system. 

Marlinspike is a cryptographer and a computer security researcher. He should know better.

“Put bluntly, the only way as a security professional you would endorse this as a valid ‘privacy coin,’ let alone push it out to your huge user base, is if you were faced with a dump-truck full of money,” Weaver said. “I hope Moxie’s dump-truck was suitably large.”

Day trading is hard

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has been day trading public bitcoin, and he is not very good at it. Bloomberg says he is probably losing money. (Bloomberg)

The country is about $1 billion in debt already. It doesn’t help that bitcoin took a nosedive recently, losing 40% of its value since its early November high of $69,000.

I know of someone else who gambled away other people’s money: Gerald Cotten, the CEO of failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX. The exchange carried the seeds of its demise for two years before the Ponzi was exposed. Cotten died mysteriously in India just before things fell apart.

I don’t see Bukele disappearing, so who will he blame when things fall apart? Probably his adoring bitcoin supporters.

We know Bukele doesn’t like the press. Turns out he has been spying on them. Since mid-2020, dozens of journalists in El Salvador have been subjected to phone hacks using Pegasus software, according to Citizen Lab and Access Now. Pegasus is the spyware developed by Israeli company NSO Group for governments. It can infect phones running either iOS or Android. (Project Torogoz, Reuters)

If you can get past the bitcoin boosterism, this story in Bitcoin Magazine by Anita Posch has a wealth of information in it about Bukele’s plans for bitcoin in El Salvador. 

I wrote before about “volcano bonds” — bonds Bukele is using to lure $1 billion from outside investors he will use to buy more bitcoin and build a crypto metropolis. Bitcoin City is set to go near the Conchagua volcano, so geothermal energy can power the city. It is uncertain whether the volcano is even active. “I was told that the volcano is dead, and there is no geothermal energy left to be used,” said Posch.  

We don’t hear much from Strike CEO Jack Maller on El Salvador anymore. Rumor has it, the reason he didn’t build the government’s official Chivo wallet is because he wanted $300 million for the job, and because Algorand or Cardano or Koibanx paid the government $20 million to get the contract.

Mallers is now boasting about how Strike is going to save the poor in Argentina. “Today, we use the world’s open monetary network, bitcoin, to give hope to the people of Argentina,” he tweeted. Only he left out the part where it only works with tethers, not bitcoin. (Decrypt)  

NFTs collectors, the IRS wants your money

The NFT market ballooned to $44 billion in 2021, and the IRS is on the case. It wants its cut of the profits.

It’s not clear if NFTs are taxed as regular capital gains or as “collectibles,” which means you will have to pay slightly more — but that doesn’t mean you should put off filing. (Bloomberg)

Media outfit Dirt raised money selling NFTs. Now it wants to incorporate those NFTs into a DAO, so members can vote on the editorial process. What could possibly go wrong? (Verge)

CityDAO bought 40 acres of land in Wyoming for a blockchain city. The group is offering citizenship and governance tokens in exchange for the purchase of a “land NFT,” which gives you rights to a plot of land. Everything was going swimmingly until the project’s Discord server was hacked and members’ funds were stolen. So far investors have lost 29.67 ETH, worth about $92,000. (Vice)

The news industry is struggling. The Associated Press has found a solution: It is launching a marketplace for selling NFTs of its photojournalism. (Press release; Verge)

Arthur Suszko was into Beanie Babies as a kid and began collecting them again as an adult. His current project is to create NFTs of his Beanie Babies. “It’s a merger of my childhood dreams and modern passions coming together,” he said. (Vox)

The Seattle NFT Museum is charging $175 to $200 a ticket for opening weekend, for those who want to “explore the future of art,” ensuring only the most gullible will walk through its doors. (Eventbrite)

Did you read about the woman selling fart jars as NFTs? It turns out the farts-in-a-jar story was just a big publicity stunt. The entire thing appears to be made up. (Input Mag)

CZ wants to give it all away

Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (aka “CZ”) has a net worth of $96 billion. This is impressive given that his company does not even have an official headquarters. (Bloomberg)

That’s okay because CZ told the AP he is giving it all away. When you are constantly on the move dodging regulators, it’s nearly impossible to buy a mansion and settle down anyway. 

CZ said the only coin he holds is Binance Coin because he doesn’t like a conflict of interest and he doesn’t want to do anything unethical. Binance never does anything unethical. (AP)

An undercover journalist applied for a job at Binance under a fake name with fake credentials. Four interviews later, he was offered the senior role in Binance’s futures business. (Disruption Banking)

Elsewhere in the news

Crypto venture capital firm Paradigm is investing in Citadel Securities. Sequoia Capital and Paradigm will invest a total of $1.15 billion in the stock trading giant at a valuation of about $22 billion. 

Citadel handles 27% of the shares that are traded in the U.S. stock market. A large part of that comes from processing trades for online brokerages such as Robinhood. (Press release, WSJ)

Citadel does not trade crypto. CEO Ken Griffin has been dismissive of crypto in the past — “I don’t see the economic underpinning of cryptocurrencies,” he told CNBC. But something changed his mind, probably the money.

After banning crypto mining in the country in an effort to deal with its energy crisis, Kosovo police seized hundreds of crypto miners. One crypto-miner admitted to paying 170 euros ($193) per month for electricity and getting 2,400 euros ($2,700) per month in profit. (Kosovo police, Balkan Insight)

Metamask is a popular browser plugin that serves as an Ethereum wallet. Matthew Green, a cryptographer and computer scientist, took a casual look at its code. He came back with “an uncomfortable feeling about the complexity and quality of MetaMask’s (current) crypto code, and some unhappy feelings about its dependency structure.” (Blog post)

Tesla now accepts dogecoin for accessories. It takes up to six hours for a transaction to go through. You cannot cancel an order. You cannot return or exchange an item bought with dogecoin. All purchases made with dogecoin are final. The future of finance! (Tesla website, Verge)

The disclaimer from Tesla’s merch store is worth a read. “..if you enter an amount MORE than the Dogecoin price, we might not be able to return the extra amount.”

Block (formerly Square) CEO Jack Dorsey is pissed off at Craig Wright’s legal nonsense. He is leading a legal defense fund for bitcoin developers, according to an email he sent to the bitcoin developers list. The fund’s first task will be to assist developers facing a lawsuit from Tulip Trading Limited, the firm associated with Wright. (Email, NYT)

Last year, Wright filed a lawsuit against bitcoin core developers after losing a pile of bitcoin in a hack, saying they refused to help him recover the lost coins. 

Dorsey manages a bitcoin exchange, a bitcoin development fund, a bitcoin L2 project — and now a legal defense fund. Bitcoin is decentralized. 

Cryptoland is a dream project to turn a private Fijian island into a libertarian utopia. After software engineer and Wikipedia editor Molly White made fun of them on Twitter, Cryptoland sent a cease and desist letter to her for making fun of them on Twitter. (Twitter)

They also sent a “cease and decease.” (Twitter)

After getting a lot of bad press, Cryptoland is fighting back! (FT)

As part of that, Cryptoland took down its cringe-worthy video. However, the Internet is decentralized. Someone uploaded a copy to Peertube. There is also an extended version if you really enjoy torture.

Celsius Network is a crypto lending and borrowing platform, whose former CFO was arrested last year. Network data shows CEO and founder Alex Mashinsky and his wife Krissy have sold approximately 20 million CEL since October 2020, netting at least $60 million. (blog post)

How Matt Damon thought we’d react to his crypto.com commercial. (Youtube)

Jamie Zawinski, the creator of Mozilla, who makes the Firefox web browser, wrote “Today on Sick Sad World: How The Cryptobros Have Fallen.”

Dave Troy, the creator of Mailstrom, has a great thread on the awful history of cryptocurrency. (Twitter)

(Updated on Jan. 17 to include how much money investors lost on CityDAO.)

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Signal adopts MobileCoin, a crypto project linked to its own creator Moxie Marlinspike

Many technologists today were disappointed to learn that Signal, an encrypted messaging service, is adopting MobileCoin (MOB), a new cryptocurrency that went live in December, for payments. 

Signal is hugely popular in the tech world. I use it, and many of the people I correspond with use it as a safe and secure way of communicating. And many prefer it over WhatsApp and Telegram.

Now, the non-profit wants to take the next step into becoming a payments service—so you can send money, and nobody will know who you are sending it to, or why. Here’s the blog post announcing the beta build.

Andy Greenberg wrote up a story in Wired covering the main points of the announcement yesterday. The idea is to have a cryptocurrency designed to work efficiently on mobile devices while protecting users’ privacy—and anonymity. For now, Signal’s payment feature will be available only to users in the UK, and only on iOS and Android—not the desktop. 

What is worth underscoring is that Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal and CEO of the nonprofit that runs it, was a paid advisor to MobileCoin. In fact, he was the original CTO of the company, according to an early MobileCoin white paper.

Insider trading?

The price of MOB surged from $7 to $68 in the last week, according to Coinmarketcap—possibly because word of the announcement had leaked—before taking a dump overnight, dropping to $39. (MOB trades mainly on FTX, an Antigua and Barbuda-based cryptocurrency exchange.)

The price movements look a little like insider trading—just a little.

Interestingly, Signal kept their server code closed-source for a year to hide the integration. It only just recently re-open-sourced it, so who could have possibly known this big announcement was forthcoming?

Marlinspike told Wired he does not hold any MOB, which is hard to believe, given he was involved with the coin’s early development. (It is common practice in crypto for advisers and developers to get paid with the crypto of the projects they are involved in.) But who knows? Maybe he can’t hold any coins right now for regulatory reasons.

Most technologists, except for a vocal few, don’t like cryptocurrency, and for good reason. The space is rife with fraud and scams. So you can start to understand why they are unhappy.

“Signal users are overwhelmingly tech savvy consumers and we’re not idiots, Stephen Diehl, a UK-based software engineer, wrote in a blog post. “Do they think we don’t see through the thinly veiled pump and dump scheme that’s proposed? It’s an old scam with a new face.”

“Signal isn’t integrating just any random shitcoin, it is integrating Moxie Marlinspike’s random shitcoin,” Nicholas Weaver, an infosec specialist and researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, tweeted. “Gee, what a coinkidink. I wonder how much he’s unloaded on suckers already as a result of this pump & dump?”

Funding

One item the Wired article failed to mention: In April 2018, MobileCoin took $30 million in BTC and ETH from Binance Labs, the blockchain incubator of Binance—another popular offshore crypto exchange.

(Both FTX and Binance are huge Tether customers, by the way.)

The money is flowing in from elsewhere, too.

Last month, the project got an additional $11.35 million from venture capitalists Future Ventures and General Catalyst.

MobileCoin is a pre-mined coin. It has a total fixed supply of 250 million MOB. The project sold 35.7 million coins to private investors for $0.80 per coin in order to raise $30 million, according to its 2017 white paper. 

So who is holding the rest of the coins?

Joshua Goldbard, the project’s founder, recently said on Hacker News that half the coins have now been sold, leaving MobileCoin in control of at least half the supply.

“MobileCoin has made over 50% of the coins available for purchase. We are currently figuring out how to give away coins while remaining regulatory compliant,” he said.

A centralized payment system

If Signal is trying to create a private payments system, is MobileCoin even the best choice? There are serious questions about how secure and decentralized it is. 

Mobile is based on the Stellar code, originally derived from Ripple. Stellar is centralized, and has some major security issues. The platform is unproven, even if it’s still resilient.

MobileCoin took the Stellar codebase and added some stuff, including using Intel SGX—a chip that acts as a digital vault for securing users’ sensitive information. That means that users have to put 100% of their trust in Intel chips rather than software-based cryptography.

Also, MobileCoin is running on centralized powerhouse Azure, a cloud computing service created by Microsoft.

Further, if you look at MobileCoin’s “Trusted Nodes,” you’ll see that three entities are handling all of the consensus—and “MobileCoin Worldwide” is one of them. It’s hardly decentralized.

Signal’s non-profit status?

Signal Foundation was founded in April 2018 by Marlinspike and Brian Acton. It is registered as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meaning it has been approved by the IRS as a tax-exempt, charitable organization.

The firm’s non-profit status is now being called into question, after it became clear it will be getting handouts from MobileCoin.

Goldbard flat-out admitted on Hacker News: “I started MobileCoin to fund Signal. That’s it.” 

Many Signal users are concerned that this represents a conflict of interest. Here you have a non-profit (in this case Signal Foundation) directly integrating MobileCoin in their app as a quid pro quo.

MobileCoin Radio

Just to add another slice of weirdness: MobileCoin has a MobileCoin Radio because “creation” needs privacy. I have no idea how this fits in with anything Signal or MobileCoin is doing. I’m not sure MobileCoin does either.

Here is how they explain it:

“MobileCoin Radio is a place for artists to share their creations with the world, in hopes that our shared struggle with the human condition inspires a heightened exploration of our cultural landscape and of ourselves.”

Anyway, Signal is probably going to lose some fans as a result of its foray into crypto. Why use MobileCoin in the first place when there are a host of battle-tested privacy coins to choose from? It makes no sense.

Security expert Bruce Schneier thinks it’s an incredibly bad idea that “muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.” He thinks the two apps—crypto and secure communications—should remain separate. In his mind, this is going to ruin Signal for everyone.

And let’s not forget the disaster that ensued when Facebook tried to create Libra (now Diem). Regulators shot that idea down pretty quickly. Why does Signal think it will fare any better?

(Update April 7: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Wired article failed to mention that Marlinspike was a paid advisor to MobileCoin. Actually, it does mention that he is.)

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