One of the most common misperceptions about bitcoin is that transactions are 'untraceable'. This couldn't be further from the truth, as UK startup Elliptic can attest. Its main business is tracking bitcoin flows.
"Anyone can get a record of every bitcoin transaction that has ever occurred. You can see the amount, who is sending to who, and when," Elliptic's CEO and cofounder James Smith tells Techworld.
"The idea bitcoin is untraceable is an incorrect view that most people seem to have. You don't go and write down your name to say 'this is James sending money to Charlotte', but you record that transaction publicly. The first place we get data from is that public record on the blockchain."
Elliptic, which was founded in 2013, prevents, detects and pursues criminal activity in cryptocurrencies. Smith is tight-lipped about clientele names but says they work with law enforcement agencies in the US and the UK. The firm also has commercial customers including most of the big western crypto exchanges and wallet providers, plus financial institutions such as banks and trading desks.
Beyond tracking records on the public blockchain, Elliptic's analysts go out and "try to infiltrate every service out there," Smith says.
"We use Coinbase, Bitstamp, we make sure we have ways with transacting with dark web services, drug marketplaces, we have ways to try to identify who's associated with which transactions. We may never colour in the whole picture, but we can still fill in a lot of blanks," he adds.
The last year has been a wild ride for bitcoin. Its value has fluctuated wildly, peaking at £15,000 in December then falling by 70 percent. Its huge peaks and troughs, plus concerns over the amount of energy required to mine bitcoin, mean bitcoin and cryptocurrencies generally have come in for a certain degree of mistrust in recent months.
Despite that, Smith remains as convinced as he was in 2013 that cryptocurrencies have the potential to change the world.
"We're excited about the potential cryptocurrencies have to change the way we think about value transfer, democratise that, make it cheaper, faster and more widely accessible. What excited us about cryptocurrencies, especially bitcoin, is it is totally open and anyone can get involved. It's a powerful force for innovation," he says.
However, it is quite telling that, almost a decade since bitcoin was first launched, Smith says it "remains to be seen what the real killer app is that makes it take off".
Despite being labelled a 'cryptocurrency', bitcoin seems to a large extent to have become part of an asset class – a tradeable security, rather than something actually used for payment purposes.
Smith is realistic about this – but he believes it is set to change.
"I don't want to create any illusion that payment is the main use. At the moment it's mainly people speculating which is healthy and that's fine. But there is increasing use for payments. Cross-border remittance has been toured from early on, and that's picking up now," he says.
Surprisingly, given that Elliptic makes most of its money by tracking illicit activity within cryptocurrencies, Smith says the main myth around crypto that he'd like to dispel is that it is "all for criminals".
"If you look four or five years ago, bitcoin wasn't very popular generally but it was for drugs marketplaces," he says. "A much larger proportion of bitcoin activity was associated with that. Now that's down in the very low single digits percentage wise, maybe one or two percent."
Smith's belief is that if cryptocurrencies are going to achieve their true potential, it is really important legitimate players can distinguish between criminal and legitimate activity. To build trust in the space, players need to be able to understand the money they are sending or receiving, screen transactions and identify any entities that might be high risk.
"This whole sector is maturing, regulators are paying more attention and businesses are being more conscious of what they are doing," Smith says.
As part of that, he welcomes more regulation to counter some of the irresponsible activity in the sector, for example fraud around initial coin offerings (ICOs).
"The industry should be kept in check," he says.
As for Elliptic specifically, it has doubled the size of the team in the last year and Smith is currently spending most of his time on hiring, given customer demands are coming in faster than the company can service them, according to Smith.
"We're trying to ensure as the industry grows, we remain the number one source of risk intelligence," he says. "We need to make sure we focus on a narrow band of activity where we want to be the best, and not get distracted by shiny things all over the place."