Getting Serious About Virtual Assets, FATF says

21 January 2019

October 2018 the Financial Act Task Force (FATF), the global standard-setter for AML/CFT regulation, updated its recommendations to address the rapidly evolving risks related to virtual assets - which the FATF defines to include cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings (ICOs) and a broad array of other digital payment and investment technologies.

In a statement accompanying the move, the FATF stated unequivocally that, “There is an urgent need for all countries to take coordinated action to prevent the use of virtual assets for crime and terrorism.”

The FATF’s call for swiftness and cooperation is a welcome one. Many countries around the world have been slow to regulate the virtual asset space, or have failed to do so at all. This fragmented global regulatory landscape allows criminals to abuse virtual assets and exposes legitimate users and platforms to theft, fraud, and other risks.  

And with new innovations such as ICOsdecentralized exchanges, and stablecoinsconstantly appearing, regulators are struggling to keep pace.

The FATF’s recent moves have several important consequences. In the coming weeks, we’ll be offering detailed analysis describing how the regulatory picture in different regions of the world is shaping up, and what those developments mean for the virtual asset industry. In the meantime, in this post we take a look at some lessons countries should heed in light of the FATF’s latest actions.

No more fence-sitting.

Back in June 2015, the FATF issued guidance encouraging countries to regulate fiat currency-to-virtual currency exchange services. Nearly three-and-a-half years later, many countries have yet to take that basic step.

The FATF’s new posture makes clear that this do-nothing posture is unacceptable. Last week’s updates to its recommendations specify that countries must have regulation and licensing arrangements in place around virtual asset service providers.

Countries should expect that the FATF will soon begin assessing whether they are doing enough to regulate virtual assets, and those countries that continue to drag their feet may find themselves censured.

Regulatory regimes must expand in scope.  

The FATF’s updates to its recommendations also reflect the evolution in virtual asset products and services that have emerged since it issued it its original 2015 guidance. 

Countries will now need to ensure oversight of service providers beyond purely fiat currency-to-virtual asset exchange platforms. The FATF’s updates indicate that countries should monitor platforms that facilitate exchanges between different virtual assets, as well as overseeing ICO issuers, custodial wallets, and other related service providers.

Expanding the scope of entities subject to AML/CFT regulation will have important consequences.

For example, some regulatory frameworks, such as the EU’s Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD), currently do not cover the exchange between different virtual assets. This creates a significant regulatory gap at those exchanges where criminals can swap transparent cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin for privacy coins like Monero, as occurred in the WannaCry ransomware attack.   

Countries that have yet to regulate virtual assets will therefore need to ensure that any new regulations they draft are sufficiently comprehensive, while the EU and other jurisdictions that already have some regulation in place may find themselves under pressure to adopt additional measures.

Responses must be effective.

Merely putting regulations down on paper won’t be enough. Countries will need to ensure that their regulatory frameworks mitigate risks in practice and are supported by robust enforcement.

To that end, the FATF intends to release more detailed guidance by June 2019 that sets out how countries can undertake virtual asset supervision in practice. It will also provide detailed guidance on how countries can successfully investigate criminal activity involving virtual assets.

In the meantime, it is important that stakeholders do not just wait for the FATF to issue additional guidance before taking action. With the virtual asset industry moving ahead at light speed, regulators and law enforcement agencies must begin adopting best practice, knowledge, and expertise now.

Organizations such as Europol have launched important initiatives that can act as a model for law enforcement training and public-private sector collaboration in combating virtual asset-enabled crime. Countries that have yet to undertake similar efforts on these topics need to get started, or they could risk falling behind the FATF’s expectations.

Ensuring that all these pieces are in place will be far from straightforward, but they are essential if the virtual asset space is going to grow and innovate with legitimacy.

For participants in the virtual asset space, the stakes are rising.

As more countries adopt regulation, exchanges and other services providers that currently operate without oversight will come under scrutiny and will need to be able to demonstrate compliance.

And those platforms that are already subject to oversight should expect that regulators will demand evidence that their AML controls remain up to date and work in practice, or they could risk facing fines and other penalties.

At Elliptic, we assist public and private sector stakeholders in meeting challenges related to evolving virtual asset regulations. Contact us to learn more about how we can assist.


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