Crusading Against Criminal Activity on Blockchain: Q&A with Steptoe’s Alan Cohn

Topics: Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Cybersecurity, Government, Government Fraud, Legal Executive Events


Alan Cohn, co-chair of the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency practice at Steptoe & Johnson, knows blockchain technology well, and he is dedicated to stopping criminals from using it to advance their illegal activities.

But Cohn has more than private practice experience. He spent almost a decade in government service, working in senior policy positions at Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And he knows the importance of information-sharing between the public and private sectors. We recently spoke to Cohn about the Blockchain Alliance and how to thwart financial fraud when it targets blockchain.

Legal Executive Institute: How do you draw from your experience at the DHS in your current role?

Alan Cohn: I served as assistant secretary for strategy, planning, analysis, and risk for DHS, and was also dual-hatted as the deputy head of policy. In those roles, I had visibility on almost every major line of activity for the Department. I also had responsibility at different times for specific issues that bear on this space, including understanding emerging technologies that would impact homeland security, coordinating cyber-crime policy, and standing up a cybersecurity policy office.

With the DHS, we are lucky because agencies like the Secret Service and Homeland Security Investigations (an element of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) have deep knowledge and understanding of blockchain and cryptocurrency, and agencies like US Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Department’s Science & Technology Directorate are interested in how the technology can help them conduct their missions.

Indeed, blockchain technology can aid virtually all the elements within DHS with some part of their missions, from cybersecurity to disaster relief efforts to cross-border issues and identity management.


Alan Cohn, co-chair of the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency practice at Steptoe & Johnson

Knowing how government thinks about issues, and the difference in perspective between separate agencies and organizations, has been a critical part of helping clients navigate this space, and helping governments better understand this technology.

Legal Executive Institute: Can you expand on the idea of the importance of the ability of law enforcement and government agencies to react quickly to developments in new technology?

Alan Cohn: In an emerging technology environment like blockchain and cryptocurrency — one that touches so many highly regulated industries, from financial services and insurance, to supply chain management and cross-border issues, to new types of financial technology applications — an understanding of how the government will respond and react to developments in that environment is critical.

Government agencies move slowly and are most adept at deeply studying issues and then conducting processes that result in new regulatory approaches or guidance. Obviously, the blockchain and cryptocurrency ecosystem is not moving at this pace, so government agencies are forced to adjust, and this process isn’t always seamless.

Attorneys with previous experience in government can be crucial in helping companies understand how to navigate competing regulatory regimes or better engage with government officials, and can help explain emerging technology in a way that fits within how those government agencies see issues within their jurisdiction.

Legal Executive Institute: You serve as counsel to the Blockchain Alliance. What is its mission?

Alan Cohn:  My colleague Jason Weinstein and I started the Blockchain Alliance in 2015 on behalf of the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center. Jason and I had both served in government (Jason at the Department of Justice, and me at DHS), and we were both familiar with the models that agencies like the FBI and the Secret Service had used in the early- to mid-1990s to engage with nascent commercial internet companies, to combat criminal or other misuse of the internet.

What the industry realized was that the law enforcement agencies would want the same type of engagement, so why wait until they approached the industry? Why not have industry proactively approach the law enforcement agencies?

The Alliance is a 501(c)(3) organization administered by Steptoe. It began with 12 member-companies and six participating US federal law enforcement agencies. We’ve since grown to more than three dozen blockchain and cryptocurrency companies, and an equivalent number of law enforcement and regulatory agencies at the US federal and state levels and internationally.

The Alliance focuses on creating a forum for learning and engagement between industry and government, and helping connect those people when needed.

For 2018, we also want to look at new areas of engagement, for example, by creating opportunities for the compliance functions at major financial institutions to engage with industry and government partners on issues surrounding anti-money laundering, know-your-customer, sanctions compliance, and counter-terrorism financing. These are issues where engagement may help surmount some of the misunderstandings and exaggerated concerns about blockchain technology and cryptocurrency.

Legal Executive Institute: What is the value of a public-private partnership in combating criminal activity on blockchain?

Alan Cohn: It is impossible to imagine an effective approach to combating criminality in the blockchain and cryptocurrency ecosystem without robust public-private partnerships. There are people who deeply understand these technologies, the ways in which criminals and other malicious actors seek to use them, and the ways in which these efforts can be combated, within industry and government. Connecting these people, and their organizations, through ever-more sophisticated mechanisms, and in ever-more robust dialogue, is critical, not just to combating criminality, but also to ensuring that this technology continues to grow and develop.

Join Alan Cohn in New York, May 17

Whether you work in the private sector or government, or are simply a blockchain aficionado, you can join us live in New York City on May 17 for the Regulation of Financial Services Summit to learn about the hottest topics in the financial world today — including blockchain technology and more.