Cover: Exploring the use of Zcash cryptocurrency for illicit or criminal purposes

Exploring the use of Zcash cryptocurrency for illicit or criminal purposes

Published May 6, 2020

by Erik Silfversten, Marina Favaro, Linda Slapakova, Sascha Ishikawa, James Liu, Adrian Salas

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Research Questions

  1. How can cryptocurrencies be used for illicit or criminal purposes, and how does this occur?
  2. To what extent is Zcash used for illicit or criminal purposes, and how does this compare with other cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Monero?

Cryptocurrencies have been recognised as a promising financial innovation, offering security and privacy benefits for users. While these digital currencies are mostly used for legitimate purposes, they could also be exploited for criminal or illicit activities.

However, there is currently a lack of understanding regarding if and how cryptocurrencies are actually used for illicit or criminal purposes. To balance the potential risks of novel cryptocurrencies with their benefits, more evidence is needed in this area.

To help inform public debate and decision making on this issue, RAND Europe explored the uses of cryptocurrencies for illicit or criminal purposes, focusing on Zcash. Commissioned by the Electric Coin Company, who developed and maintain Zcash, this study offers new insights for law enforcement professionals, policymakers, regulators and others interested in cryptocurrencies.

Key Findings

While most transactions made with virtual coins are legitimate, cryptocurrencies are also used for a wide range of illicit or criminal purposes by a diverse group of malicious actors. The three most prominent illicit use-cases of cryptocurrencies are:

  • Money laundering
  • Trade in illicit goods and services
  • Terrorism financing

Cryptocurrencies were found to have varying levels of illicit use. In relation to the extent Zcash is used for illicit or criminal purposes (i.e. the scope, scale and nature of this phenomenon), several key findings were produced:

  • Zcash is relatively unknown in the academic research community, and the links between Zcash and illicit or criminal activities have not been substantially researched.
  • This study found no evidence of widespread illicit use of Zcash, however vigilance against its malicious use is still important.
  • Zcash has only a minor presence on the dark web, indicating that Zcash is seen as a less attractive option to dark web users and is used less often compared to other cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin and Monero.
  • Users engaged in illicit activities may not fully understand the Zcash operating model. They may also not understand the value in Zcash's privacy-preserving features, or else are not aware of or confident in them.
  • Bitcoin is still perceived to be the dominant cryptocurrency for illicit or criminal activities on the dark web, despite the creation of several more privacy-focused cryptocurrencies.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Electric Coin Company (ECC) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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