For the past decade, the abbreviations AML and KYC have become an inextricable part of our lives. To help law enforcement track illegal funds, an increasingly constraining set of anti-money-laundering measures is being implemented across the globe. For the past two decades, it has involved extensive know-your-customer obligations for financial institutions, forced to check their clients’ identities, backgrounds, and the nature of their activities. This system, based on surveillance and the presumption of guilt, has helped the global financial system to efficiently fight criminals by cutting off their money flows.

Or has it really?

Real-life numbers tell a different story. Several independent studies have found that AML and KYC policies enable the authorities to recover less than 0.1% of criminal funds. AML efforts cost a hundred times these amounts, but more importantly, they start to threaten our basic right to privacy.

The instances of absurd demands, like the one of a French man asked to justify the origin of €0.66 he wanted to deposit, are hardly raising any eyebrows anymore. Regulators face this ridicule without blinking, all while journalists and whistleblowers continue to expose billions of dollars laundered at the highest levels of the same institutions that put their regular clients through a bureaucratic nightmare.

This suggests that sacrificing our right to privacy may not be justified by the results.

The blockchain emerging as a free value-transferring system, as opposed to the KYC-gated fiat, has given hope to many personal freedom advocates. However, the regulators’ response was to try and integrate both the acts of buying and transferring crypto into the current AML processes.

Does it mean that the blockchain has been tamed, with both the entrance and the exit sealed by the AML regulation?

Luckily, not yet. Or at least, not in every jurisdiction. For example, Switzerland, famous for its practical common sense, often allows companies to define their own risk exposure. This means that people can buy reasonable amounts of crypto without KYC.

The Swiss example could prove valuable in stopping global AML practices from spiralling out of control and bringing a surveillance state upon the world that used to be known as “free”. It is worth taking a closer look at, but first, let’s see why the traditional AML approach is failing.

KYC: the worst policy ever

Few people dare to question the effectiveness of the current AML-KYC policies: no one wants to appear on the “criminal” side of the debate. However, this debate is worth having, for our societies appear to be spending an indecent amount of money and effort on something that just does not work as intended.

As noted by the director of Europol Rob Wainwright in 2018: “The banks are spending $20 billion a year to run the compliance regime … and we are seizing 1 percent of criminal assets every year in Europe.”

This thought was developed in one of the most comprehensive studies on…

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