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Opinion As Vancouver mulls a bitcoin ATM ban, don’t forget who this might hurt the most: sex workers

Ethan Lou’s first book, Once a Bitcoin Miner a memoir through scandal and turmoil in the cryptocurrency Wild West – will be published in 2020 by ECW Press.

With report after inquiry after investigation suggesting a crisis of money laundering in British Columbia, the City of Vancouver has decided to tackle the problem by targeting what it sees as its lowest common denominator: bitcoin ATMs.

Of course, the ATMs are hardly representative of cryptocurrency, and few investors may be mourning their loss. But lost in the news is the consideration of who exactly is using them: some of whom are often on society’s fringes, especially sex workers. Vancouver’s potential ban on such machines will affect that vulnerable group disproportionately.

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The move was based on what the city called police “information,” but that appeared to be just a hunch. The decision was publicized so haphazardly that when I asked authorities about it two days later, they had no idea what was going on.

Make no mistake, the issue of bitcoin ATMs is one of social class. Sex workers use cryptocurrency to buy ads or run websites because credit-card issuers often refuse to work with the platforms and hosting services that cater to their industry. Using cryptocurrency also grants a certain anonymity, which is of particular importance; many sex workers deliberately avoid using online exchange platforms, which have lower fees, but often require bank accounts, credit cards, a fixed address or other identification.

“We don't know where that identification is going. It can be hosted offshore,” a Vancouver sex worker, Hailey Heartless, told me. “You don't know what websites might end up getting hacked or their databases stolen. A lot of people don't want to be outed as sex workers.”

The online exchange platforms also require an internet connection, and a certain level of technological savviness on the part of the user. It can also take days to verify documentation, if it is indeed submitted. That doesn’t seem like a high bar, but it can be difficult to meet for sex workers who do it out of extreme need and who also want to advertise online.

Enter bitcoin ATMs, which, unlike online exchanges, are simple, indiscriminate and demand next to nothing of the user. For that convenience, they charge a high price, with commission and markup sometimes as high as 20 per cent.

Of course, what makes the ATMs attractive to sex workers is no doubt also attractive to money launderers. British Columbia has wide-ranging issues with dirty money and it is not a stretch to say the ATMs could be involved. But cleaning ill-gotten gains is almost as old as sex work. Are bitcoin ATMs used more so than, or even as frequently as, restaurants, casinos, convenience stores or any other business?

It is unclear what police information the city was referring to when it cited money laundering as the reason for the potential ban. The police haven’t said much publicly beyond a February report that mainly raised the alarm on Canada Revenue Agency phone scams, in which fraudsters demand bitcoin, often obtained by victims from ATMs.

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That is a serious issue. ATMs are probably also used by privacy-minded people who want to keep their assets to themselves. But that’s not exactly money laundering. In the February report, the police made little more than a prediction that criminals “will be exploring” ATMs to clean dirty funds.

The city has not made a final decision on this ban. Staff are researching the matter and will report back by the end of the year, although a ban may not be the only outcome.

But even a little regulation, which may seem inconsequential to a city worker, can have a large and regressive impact. Forcing the machines to require identification, for example, is as good as a ban for the sex workers that need the anonymity.

Yet, those who actually launder money might end up little affected. With the right will and means, it is not hard to buy bitcoin anonymously for cheaper than through ATMs. People deeply involved in cryptocurrency know a guy – or know a guy who knows a guy – who can facilitate that.

As the City of Vancouver goes about its research, it is incumbent upon staff to at least consult the sex workers who, through no fault of their own, are caught in someone else’s fight, potentially made to suffer from someone else’s sins.

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