BANGKOK — A government official said Wednesday it’s looking to allow law enforcement to confiscate the cryptocurrency of those involved in serious crimes.
Due to a legal loophole, police cannot seize cryptocurrencies from suspected or convicted criminals because they are not recognized under the law as are regular currency and assets, according to a representative whose agency is tasked with seizing assets in legal cases.
“We are holding meetings to study it,” Rattanawadee Somboon, deputy chief of the Legal Execution Department, said Wednesday. “Now it’s up in the air. There is no legal recognition whatsoever.”
Narcotics police commander Sommai Kongvisaisuk said if drug suspects keep their wealth in bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, his force would be powerless to seize them.
“We are merely agents of the state. We have no right to decide what the laws say,” Maj. Gen. Sommai said.
Use of cryptocurrency for criminal enterprise has attracted the attention of Thai authorities, especially after the founder of what at the time was the world’s leading dark web marketplace was arrested in Bangkok in July.
That month, Thai and US investigators closed in on Alexandre Cazes, who facilitated trade of narcotics, firearms and counterfeit goods and more on AlphaBay using bitcoin. Cazes held at least 250 million baht in bitcoin when he was arrested. Police said he committed suicide in custody less than a week after his arrest.
Sommai, who led the operation against Cazes, said his force didn’t touch the cryptowealth amassed by the AlphaBay admin due to the legal limitations. Thai police simply transferred the case to the American authorities, he said.
“It’s too slow. They should have done it long time ago,” Sommai said of the Legal Execution Department’s effort to amend the law.
But even with a law in their hands, the police would be unable to just seize suspects’ digital cash without their consent due to the currency’s decentralized nature, warned Jirayut Srupsrisopa, a consultant on financial technologies.
“You can amend the law in theory, but in practice, you need a private key in order to transfer bitcoin from someone’s wallet,” Jirayut said. “It’s the only way.”
By design, there is no central authority that can surrender access to accounts in bitcoin or the dozens of other cryptocurrencies such as Monero or Ethereum. Therein lies the built-in appeal of such currencies – especially for illicit purposes – which can’t be targeted for seizure as with traditional banking. Jirayuth said brute forcing passwords to bitcoin wallets is near impossible.
“The possibility is so low. It’s like finding a single file in a universe,” Jirayut said.
The government has viewed cryptocurrency with suspicion and warned the public from dealing in it. In February, the central bank banned all commercial banks from allowing their clients to buy bitcoin with the credit cards they issued.
But at the same time, the government is moving to legislate regulation of crypto trading – and tax it. The central bank has also expressed interest in bringing blockchain technology into its fold.