During a livestreamed Q+A yesterday, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong was asked about “the most ambitious thing Coinbase wants to do in the next five years.” He answered that he hoped his company would “like overthrow some corrupt dictators in the world.” It’s a fine sentiment (spotted by Mashable)—though hard to square with Coinbase’s very recent acqui-hiring of a team of midnight-black hackers who made their bones helping dictators target dissidents worldwide.
Brian Armstrong, it seems, really wants you to forget about Hacking Team.
A brief refresher: in February, Coinbase announced the acquisition of Neutrino, a ‘blockchain analysis’ firm. Unfortunately, most crypto exchanges now use such services to monitor customers’ transactions for things like money laundering or terrorist financing, to some extent undermining the autonomy promised by cryptocurrency. Coinbase specifically is well-known for locking the accounts of users who transact with the wrong people, but rarely (if ever) provides a clear explanation.
As he becomes more public, we hope Armstrong will finally get around to answering the question: Where is Hacking Team?
But that’s not all, folks. With help from some whistleblowers, BREAKER highlighted that Neutrino had most of the same leadership as Hacking Team, an Italian operation that had sold incursion and spyware tech to brutal dictatorships worldwide. Reams of existing reporting showed that they had been accused of violating international weapons-control treaties, and played at least a minor role in the murder of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Internal communications suggested the former Hacking Team members may be ideological authoritarians themselves. Coinbase’s acquisition of Neutrino added up to a big payday for several of these nefarious figures.
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Those discoveries led to a wave of online protest encouraging users to delete their Coinbase accounts. Within a few days, Coinbase acknowledged that it “had a gap in our diligence process” when acquiring Neutrino (translation: ‘We don’t know how to Google’), and announced that former Hacking Team members would “transition out of Coinbase.” However, Coinbase has refused to clarify exactly when that ‘transition’ did or will happen, or even to give basic assurances that the former Hacking Team leaders won’t be retained as contractors. We still have no clear evidence that they aren’t involved in monitoring your Coinbase transactions right this second.
Armstrong’s offhand remark came as part of what looks like a concerted effort to get the Lex Luthor lookalike more engaged with the crypto community. Armstrong wanted to know “What do you want to see more of from me on Twitter?” He has also hinted that he will be doing more podcasts soon. As he becomes more public, we hope Armstrong will finally get around to answering the question: Where is Hacking Team?