[Monero Research] Those who control the code control the rules

tl;dr new peer reviewed research, that uses Monero as a case study, was published last week (i am one of the co-authors and was lead researcher). the paper details the varied perspectives found within the development of blockchain systems. a set of 22 interviews are compared drawn from five core “social worlds” – users, cryptographic researchers, protocol developers, corporate architects, and regulators. for the most part the perspectives are very similar, except for the obvious sticking point of “extraordinary transactions”. It is not clear what the path is for resolution on this issue.

hey all. i am going to try and keep this short.

In 2018 i started a study as part of the post-grad research i was doing at University College Cork, Ireland.

The goal of the study was to try and understand the varied existent perspectives of privacy as found within the blockchain space. I wanted to see how the view found within the Monero community (at least as described by the members of the community i interviewed) differed from those found outside of the community. The research took place over the next 12-15 months or so. I presented the initial findings in a talk at DefCon 2019.

Once the study concluded the paper went through peer review (took about 18 months in total and three peer review rounds with experts in the field), and has now been published in a “high-impact factor” journal – The Journal of Information Technology. You can find it here, and here. Sorry there are certain copyright restrictions. I cannot really do much about it, at the moment.

From my own perspective, the paper (while not groundbreaking) portrays a lot of the very important discussion, viewpoints, perspectives, and points of contention found within and without the Monero community. It highlights why we (and others) see privacy as important, and also outlines the common ground that exists within most all of the involved social worlds (users, cryptographic researchers, protocol developers, corporate architects, and regulators).

Three key findings emerge:

  1. None of the social worlds express a desire to monitor routine transactions, despite the obvious business and tax-collection value of such data
  2. Regulators are happy to postpone active involvement, based on the flawed assumption they can impose privacy-related regulation later, once risks have become clear. Such regulation may not be possible as protocols and rulesets currently being coded into the system may be impossible to amend in the future (unless they can obtain either developer or network consensus)
  3. Regulators assume methods for overseeing extraordinary transaction are necessary to avoid widespread, near-effortless money laundering. Yet, each of the other social worlds is operating under the assumption that this trade-off has already been accepted. These findings demonstrate subtle power transitions and changes in privacy attitudes that have implications for research on blockchain, management, and boundary objects in general.

I want to say thanks to all those that participated in this study. Along the way i spoke to a host of really interesting, engaging and informed characters – from hardcore cypherpunks, dedicated users, Monero related business owners, big five finance firm employees, and also some key regulators (and their advisors) within Europe and the United States.

The study isn’t perfect, but its a start.

The goal was to at least demonstrate and why we believe financial privacy is important (ideologically, economically, and technically), regardless of the continued efforts to ensure that it is not afforded to the average citizen.

The full abstract of the paper is found below:

Abstract

Blockchain systems afford new privacy capabilities. This threatens to create conflict, as different social groups involved in blockchain development often disagree on which capabilities specific systems should enact. This article adopts a boundary object perspective to make sense of disagreements between collaborating social worlds. We perform a case study of privacy attitudes among collaborating actors in Monero, a cryptocurrency community that emphasises privacy and decentralisation alongside a set of values sometimes described as anti-establishment, crypto-anarchist, and/ or cypherpunk. The case study performs a series of interviews with users, developers, cryptographic researchers, corporate architects, and government regulators. Three novel and important findings emerge. The first is that none of the social worlds express a desire to monitor routine transactions, despite the obvious business and tax-collection value of such data. The second is that regulators are happy to postpone active involvement, based on the flawed assumption they can impose privacy-related regulation later, once risks have become clear. Such regulation may not be possible as protocols and rulesets currently being coded into the system may be impossible to amend in the future (unless they can obtain either developer or network consensus). The third is that regulators assume methods for overseeing extraordinary transaction are necessary to avoid widespread, near-effortless money laundering. Yet, each of the other social worlds is operating under the assumption that this trade-off has already been accepted. These findings demonstrate subtle power transitions and changes in privacy attitudes that have implications for research on blockchain, management, and boundary objects in general.

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