One attraction of Binance, as the company grew from its 2017 founding into the biggest cryptocurrency exchange in the world, was the firm’s freewheeling flouting of rules. As it amassed well over 100 million crypto-trading users globally, it openly told the United States government that, as an offshore operation, it didn’t have to comply with the country’s financial regulations and money-laundering laws.
Then, late last month, those years of brushing off US regulators caught up with the company in the form of one the most punitive money-laundering criminal settlements in the history of the US Justice Department. The crackdown doesn’t just mean a chastened Binance will have to change its practices going forward. It means that when the company is sentenced in a matter of months, it will be forced to open its past books to regulators, too. What was once a haven for anarchic crypto commerce is about to be transformed into the opposite: perhaps the most fed-friendly business in the cryptocurrency industry, retroactively offering more than a half-decade of users’ transaction records to US regulators and law enforcement.
When the Department of Justice announced on November 21 that Binance’s executives had agreed to plead guilty to criminal money-laundering charges, much of the attention on that settlement focused on founder Changpeng Zhao giving up his CEO role and on the company’s record-breaking $4.3 billion fine. But Binance’s settlement agreements with the DOJ and the US Treasury Department also stipulate a strict new regime of data-sharing with law enforcement and regulators. The company has agreed to comply with regulators’ “requests for information”—a term that carries none of the evidence or suspicion requirements necessary for obtaining a warrant or even a subpoena—to the point of producing any “information, testimony, document, record, or other tangible evidence.”
Binance has also agreed to scour all of its transactions from 2018 to 2022 and file suspicious activity reports (SARs) for anything it deems a potential violation of US law from that five-year period. That “SAR lookback” means the company will now be actively scrutinizing its customers in retrospect, not just passively assenting to regulators poring over its databases. Those SARs are collected by FinCEN, the Treasury Department’s financial crimes division, but then made available to law enforcement agencies from the FBI to IRS Criminal Investigations to local police. And all of this new scrutiny will be overseen by a “monitor” firm chosen by the US government but paid by Binance—an in-house watchdog assigned to make sure Binance is complying in good faith.
“I don’t think Binance’s customers have the slightest clue of the ramifications of this plea and consent decree. It’s unprecedented,” says John Reed Stark, who spent 20 years as an attorney at the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), including as the founder of its Office of Internet Enforcement. “If they’re a drug dealer or a terrorist or a child pornography peddler, they’re going to get caught.” He describes Binance’s agreement as a “24/7, 365-days-a-year financial colonoscopy.”
One US prosecutor, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak to media about the case, calls the degree of access to Binance’s records described in the agreement “kind of crazy,” and remains in disbelief at the idea of Binance abiding by the settlement. “I don’t know what kind of business would want to operate while allowing that much government oversight, especially one that’s deliberately stayed out of the US so that they’re not under our nose,” they say. “The other option must have been really bad.”