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Brain implant startup backed by Bezos and Gates is testing mind-controlled computing on humans

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Philip O’Keefe, one of Synchron’s patients in the SWITCH clinical trial, using his BCI.
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Source: Synchron

In a Brooklyn lab stuffed with 3D printers and a makeshift pickleball court, employees at a brain interface startup called Synchron are working on technology designed to transform daily life for people with paralysis.
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The Synchron Switch is implanted through the blood vessels to allow people with no or very limited physical mobility to operate technology such as cursors and smart home devices using their mind. So far, the nascent technology has been used on three patients in the U.S. and four in Australia.

“I’ve seen moments between patient and partner, or patient and spouse, where it’s incredibly joyful and empowering to have regained an ability to be a little bit more independent than before,” Synchron CEO Tom Oxley told CNBC in an interview. “It helps them engage in ways that we take for granted.”

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Founded in 2012, Synchron is part of the burgeoning brain-computer interface, or BCI, industry. A BCI is a system that deciphers brain signals and translates them into commands for external technologies. Perhaps the best-known name in the space is Neuralink, thanks to the high profile of founder Elon Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter.

But Musk isn’t the only tech billionaire wagering on the eventual transition of BCI from radical science experiment to flourishing medical business. In December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round that included funding from the investment firms of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

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‘More scalable’

In August 2020, the Food and Drug Administration granted Synchron the Breakthrough Device designation, which is for medical devices that have the potential to provide improved treatment for debilitating or life-threatening conditions. The following year, Synchron became the first company to receive an Investigational Device Exemption from the FDA to conduct trials of a permanently implantable BCI in human patients. 

Synchron is enrolling patients in an early feasibility trial, which aims to show that the technology is safe to put in humans. Six patients will be implanted with Synchron’s BCI during the study, and Chief Commercial Officer Kurt Haggstrom said the company is currently about halfway through. 

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The company has no revenue yet, and a spokesperson said Synchron isn’t commenting on how much the procedure will eventually cost.

While many competitors have to implant their BCIs through open-brain surgery, Synchron relies on a less invasive approach that builds on decades of existing endovascular techniques, the company said.

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The Stentrode™ Endovascular Electrode Array.

Source: Synchron

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Synchron’s BCI is inserted through the blood vessels, which Oxley calls the “natural highways” into the brain. Synchron’s stent, called the Stentrode, is fitted with tiny sensors and is delivered to the large vein that sits next to the motor cortex. The Stentrode is connected to an antenna that sits under the skin in the chest and collects raw brain data that it sends out of the body to external devices. 

Peter Yoo, senior director of neuroscience at Synchron, said since the device is not inserted directly into the brain tissue, the quality of the brain signal isn’t perfect. But the brain doesn’t like being touched by foreign objects, Yoo said, and the less invasive nature of the procedure makes it more accessible.

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“There’s roughly about 2,000 interventionalists who can perform these procedures,” Yoo told CNBC. “It’s a little bit more scalable, compared to, say, open-brain surgery or burr holes, which only neurosurgeons can perform.”

Philip O’Keefe, one of Synchron’s patients in the SWITCH clinical trial, was the first person in the world to tweet using a BCI device.

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Source: Synchron

For patients with severe paralysis or degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Synchron’s technology can help them regain their ability to communicate with friends, family and the outside world, whether through typing, texting or even accessing social media. 

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Patients can use Synchron’s BCI to shop online and manage their health and finances, but Oxley said what often excites them the most is text messaging. 

“Losing the ability to text message is incredibly isolating,” Oxley said. “Restoring the ability to text message loved ones is a very emotional restoration of power.” 

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In December 2021, Oxley handed over his Twitter account to a patient named Philip O’Keefe, who has ALS and struggles to move his hands. About 20 months earlier, O’Keefe was implanted with Synchron’s BCI. 

“hello, world! Short tweet. Monumental progress,” O’Keefe tweeted on Oxley’s page, using the BCI. 

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Synchron’s technology has caught the attention of its competitors. Musk approached the company to discuss a potential investment last year, according to a Reuters report. Synchron declined to comment about the report. Neuralink didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Neuralink is developing a BCI that’s designed to be inserted directly into the brain tissue, and while the company is not testing its device in humans yet, Musk has said he hopes it will do so this year

Haggstrom said his company’s funding will help accelerate Synchron’s product development and push it toward a pivotal clinical trial that would bring the company closer to commercialization.

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Khosla Ventures partner Alex Morgan, who led an earlier financing round, said that while Synchron’s device may seem like something out of science fiction, it’s grounded in “real science” and is already making a significant difference in patients’ lives. 

“Synchron is actually helping people as of right now, today,” he said in an interview. “That, to me, is really exceptional.” 

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Synchron’s brain-computer interface, The Stentrode™ Endovascular Electrode Array and Implantable Receiver Transmitter Unit.

Source: Synchron

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In January, the medical journal JAMA Neurology published the peer-reviewed, long-term safety results from a trial of Synchron’s BCI system in Australia. The study found that the technology remained safe and didn’t deteriorate in signal quality or performance over a 12-month period.

“That was a huge publication for us,” Haggstrom said.

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Haggstrom said commercialization is key for all the players in the industry.

“I always like to be competitive, and so for me, being first to market is critical,” Haggstrom said. “We meet future patients to talk to about their needs and stuff, and so when you see that, and you talk to these families and the caregivers, you want to race as fast as you can to provide them assistance in their daily life.”

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WATCH: Mind-reading technology will allow us to control devices with our thoughts

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TikTok CEO got grilled by lawmakers from both parties on whether the Chinese-owned app can protect American privacy

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TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew reacts during a session for him to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing entitled “TikTok: How Congress can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms,” as lawmakers scrutinize the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2023.
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Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

“Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress,” boomed Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., speaking to the TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, a couple hours into a marathon hearing about the potential threat to U.S. consumers from the massively popular short-form video app.
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“We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security, we care about our economy and we sure as heck care about our children,” Carter said.

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Chew found little reprieve during the questioning from either side of the aisle on Thursday. Lawmakers grilled him on the app’s potential to harm kids through its addictive features and potentially dangerous posts, as well as whether data from U.S. users could end up in the hands of the Chinese government through its China-based owner, ByteDance.

After more than five hours of questioning, it’s clear that lawmakers on the committee are not satisfied with TikTok’s current ownership structure, even if not all of them are calling for a full ban. But Chew’s testimony did not quell many concerns that lawmakers had about its ties to China or the adequacy of its risk-mitigation plan, Project Texas. In some cases, it may even provide fodder for those who believe the risk from TikTok is unacceptable.

“I’ve not been reassured by anything you’ve said so far and I think quite frankly your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., said at one point in the hearing.

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It’s not clear how Thursday’s hearing will translate into action. But several members seemed focused on passing a comprehensive digital privacy bill, like the one the panel approved last Congress but didn’t get to the floor for a full chamber vote. That sort of legislation would help resolve data privacy concerns that exist across all tech companies, including U.S. businesses like Meta, Google, Twitter and Snap.

Read more about tech and crypto from CNBC Pro

Congress has been mulling such a bill for years with no results. Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., noted this was the 32nd hearing Congress has held on privacy and Big Tech.

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A ban or forced sale of the app, which some members think is the only way to solve the immediate risks, is another matter. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) is reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of TikTok’s predecessor app, Musical.ly. It could recommend that the president force divestment if members can’t agree on an acceptable alternative to mitigate national security risks.

Or, the government could find other ways to try to ban the app. For example, the bipartisan RESTRICT Act introduced in the Senate would give the Commerce secretary the ability to review technology from foreign adversary countries and recommend the president ban the technology if the risks can’t be appropriately mitigated.

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In one particularly dramatic moment on Thursday, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., played a video she found on TikTok showing what appeared to be an animated gun continuously reloading with the caption “Me asf at the, House Energy and Commerce Committee on 3/23/23.” TikTok removed the video at some point during the hearing.

TikTok played down the importance of Thursday’s hearing in a statement.

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“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said. “Also not mentioned today by members of the Committee: the livelihoods of the 5 million businesses on TikTok or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans.”

Clarity on China connections

Chew began his opening remarks by sharing details of his background and the countries to which he’s been connected. Chew said that he’s lived in Singapore, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Like him, his parents were born in Singapore and his wife was born in Virginia.

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Notably, China wasn’t on the list.

But during the hearing, lawmakers drilled down into TikTok’s ties to China through its parent company.

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While TikTok recently found a few allies on Capitol Hill, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee did not display a similar level of sympathy. On Wednesday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., likened the focus on TikTok to a “red scare” over China, but many of his Democratic colleagues on Thursday seemed deeply concerned about security risks stemming from TikTok’s Chinese ownership.

Throughout the hearing, the lawmakers interrogated Chew about the ability of China-based ByteDance employees to access U.S. data, its failure to remove some dangerous or harmful posts and whether the company has interacted or aligned itself with the Chinese Communist Party.

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Chew denied that TikTok shares data with the Chinese Communist Party. He said the company doesn’t have a policy to ask individual employees about their party affiliations in China, but pointed out that ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo is not a member of the party.

A key question for members of the committee seemed to be whether TikTok could uphold American values while being a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Lawmakers and intelligence officials fear that Chinese government officials could access U.S. user data from ByteDance through a Chinese law that allows officials to obtain company information for purported national security reasons.

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“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values — values for freedom, human rights, and innovation,” said Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R.-Wash., who supports a TikTok ban, in prepared remarks.

“TikTok needs to be an American company with American values and end its ties to the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Darren Soto, R-Fla., later echoed.

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Chew admitted that China-based employees can still access some U.S. data, but that new data will stop flowing once the firm finishes deleting it from its Singapore and Virginia-based servers as part of its Project Texas mitigation plan.

But several members said they think the project is still inadequate to protect American data.

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“I don’t find what you suggested with Project Texas and this firewall that’s being suggested to whoever will be acceptable to me,” ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said. “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do.”

It didn’t help that The Wall Street Journal reported that China said it would oppose a forced sale of TikTok, saying that it would involve an export of technology.

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“Despite your assertions to the contrary, China certainly thinks it is in control of TikTok and its software,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, pointing to the news article.

Burgess and others also asked Chew about his preparation and whether ByteDance employees were involved in getting him ready for the hearing. Chew said TikTok’s team in D.C. helped him prep.

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Later, Chew told Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., that TikTok shares legal counsel with ByteDance. Griffith said under that arrangement, “there is no firewall, legally,” since those lawyers could share information with each other.

When Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., asked if Beijing has persecuted the Uyghur minority group in the country, Chew sought to redirect the discussion back to TikTok.

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“While it’s deeply concerning to hear about all accounts of human rights abuse, my role here is to explain what our platform does,” Chew said.

Later, when Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, asked if TikTok supports genocide, Chew again sought to bring the conversation back to app. Asked a second time, Chew answered that no, it does not.

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Toward the end of the hearing, Chew expressed that his testimony was attempting to do something almost impossible. Referencing a report that members brought up from the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, Chew said, “Citizen Lab is saying that they cannot prove a negative, which is what I have been trying to do for the last four hours.”

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These tech giants are still making money, but layoffs are coming hard and fast

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Google and Facebook parent Meta are some of the companies that have laid off workers in recent months.
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From the U.S. to Europe and Asia, global tech giants from Microsoft and Google, to Amazon, SAP and more have laid off thousands of employees since the start of the year.
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That’s despite most of these companies being profitable.

“Headcount reduction is a result of over hiring during the pandemic and a slower growth outlook than originally forecasted,” according to a report by financial services company Jefferies.

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With interest rates and inflation remaining elevated, consumers are pulling back spending amid uncertainty in the global economy.

As a result, companies “need to reduce headcount in order to regain operating efficiency with a headcount that matches current demand trends,” the analysts at Jefferies said.

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With interest rates rising, capital has become more expensive and companies started reining in their headcount costs.

“Particularly for startups, the surge in employment was partly fueled by cheap capital,” wrote a Bank of America Global Research report.

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Here are some of the more prominent global tech firms that have axed staff despite earning big money.

Microsoft

Microsoft posted a net profit of $16.4 billion for the quarter ended Dec. 31, down 8% from a year ago. Its cloud business drove results, with Microsoft Cloud revenue at $27.1 billion, up 22% year-over-year.

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The firm also delivered “record results” in fiscal year 2022 ended Jun. 30 despite a “dynamic environment,” CEO Satya Nadella said in the tech giant’s annual report.

“We reported $198 billion in revenue and $83 billion in operating income. And the Microsoft Cloud surpassed $100 billion in annualized revenue for the first time,” he said in the fiscal year 2022 report.

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Despite that, Microsoft announced in January that it’s laying off 10,000 workers as the firm braces for slower revenue growth.

Alphabet, parent of Google

Google parent Alphabet announced in January it will be cutting 12,000 workers.

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The company missed on earnings and revenue in the fourth quarter, but managed to eke out a 1% year-on-year revenue growth for the quarter ended December.

CFO Ruth Porat said during the earnings call that Alphabet added 3,455 people during the quarter, most of them technical roles.

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She also told CNBC’s Deirdre Bosa the company is meaningfully slowing the pace of hiring in a bid to deliver profitable growth in the longer run.

“Over the past two years we’ve seen periods of dramatic growth. To match and fuel that growth, we hired for a different economic reality than the one we face today,” said CEO Sundar Pichai, in a memo to staff.

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Amazon

SAP

Germany’s SAP said it met guidance across the board for full year 2022, with cloud revenue increasing 24% from a year ago. The enterprise software company also returned to positive operating profit growth of 2%.

However, SAP announced in January that it’s cutting up to 3,000 jobs, as the leadership seeks to steer the company toward double-digit profit growth in 2023.

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Sea Group

Singapore-based tech giant Sea Group reported net income of $422.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2022 — the company’s first quarterly profit since it started in 2019.

Days later, the Indonesian unit of Sea’s e-commerce arm Shopee conducted a fresh round of layoffs, affecting less than 500 full-time and contractual employees, according to media reports.

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Last year, the company reportedly already cut more than 7,000 jobs — or about 10% of its workforce.

Other tech firms in Asia have not been spared either.

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Indonesia’s GoTo Group, Singapore’s Sea Group, Carousell, Foodpanda and South Korea’s Naver and Kakao are some of the companies that have cut employees in the last few months.

Dell

Meta announces more layoffs

The headcount reduction was conducted in an effort to “stay ahead of downturn impacts,” co-COO Jeff Clarke said in a memo to employees.

While fiscal year 2023 revenue improved, Dell’s operating income dipped 26% to $1.18 billion in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023 as demand for PCs and laptops slowed globally.

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Apple

Apple has dodged mass layoffs so far, having hired at a slower pace than Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Meta.

But the iPhone-maker is also seen tightening its belt.

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The company reportedly delayed bonuses for some employees and limited hiring in March. Apple let go of contract staff in August, according to a Bloomberg report.

The iPhone maker missed expectations for revenue, profit, and sales for several lines of business in the first quarter of fiscal year 2023 which ended Dec. 31 last year.

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CEO Tim Cook blamed it on a strong dollar, production disruptions in China, and macro headwinds.

This is not exhaustive list.

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Crypto is banned in China, but Binance employees and support volunteers tell people how to bypass the ban

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Binance is the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, handling $490 billion of spot trading volumes in March 2022.
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Binance is the world’s largest crypto exchange by volume and assets, processing $9.5 trillion worth of trades in 2021 alone. But it’s not supposed to be allowed to operate in China, which banned cryptocurrency trading in 2021.
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Binance founder Changpeng “CZ” Zhao has touted the exchange’s know-your-customer systems, known as KYC, as a billion-dollar effort. Among other functions, they are supposed to stop customers that aren’t supposed to be on the platform, including residents of China.

But customers in China and around the world regularly subvert Binance’s controls to hide their country of residence or origin, messages in Binance’s official Chinese-language chatrooms show.

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CNBC obtained, translated and reviewed hundreds of messages from a Discord server and Telegram group which are controlled and operated by Binance. More than 220,000 users were registered across both groups, which were freely accessible to anyone who registered and joined. Until late March, there were no controls on access, which is how CNBC was able to review messages from 2021 to 2023.

The messages CNBC reviewed come from accounts identified as Binance employees or Binance-trained volunteers known as “Angels.” In these messages, they shared techniques that can be used to evade Binance’s KYC, residency, and verification systems.

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Some of the techniques that employees and volunteers have shared involve forging bank documents or offering false addresses. Others involve simple manipulation of Binance’s systems.

Employees, volunteers, and customers also shared video guides and documents that showed mainland residents how to falsify their country of residence in order to obtain Binance’s debit card, which would effectively turn their Binance crypto into a conventional checking account.

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Whatever the method, Binance’s Chinese users take on a significant risk: In China, crypto exchanges have been outlawed since 2017, while crypto itself was outlawed in 2021. Many of the products that Chinese residents seek access to are also illegal under Chinese law.

The techniques shared with and among customers also call into question the effectiveness of Binance’s anti-money laundering efforts. For international businesses like Binance, KYC and anti-money laundering efforts are critical in ensuring customers aren’t engaged in illegal activity, like terrorism or fraud.

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Experts in financial regulation shared concern that Binance’s KYC and AML efforts can be so easily thwarted.

“If I had a eight out of 10 concern about Binance from a regulatory perspective and from a national security perspective, this takes it to a 10 out of 10,” Duke University professor and former FDIC chief innovation officer Sultan Meghji told CNBC.

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Meghji’s concerns about the laxity of Binance’s enforcement of KYC guidelines extend beyond China. “I think explicitly about the national security implications of how terrorists, criminals, money launderers, cyber people in North Korea, Russian oligarchs, et cetera, could use this to get access to this infrastructure,” he said, referring to some of the techniques described.

Wells Fargo anti-money laundering executive Jim Richards agreed that the techniques for bypassing Binance’s KYC controls could have implications beyond China. “What about North Korean customers, or Russian customers, or Iranian customers?” Richards asked.

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When reached for comment on the findings in this article, a Binance spokesperson told CNBC, “We have taken action against employees who may have violated our internal policies including wrongly soliciting or making recommendations that are not allowed or in line with our standards. We have strict policies requiring all users to pass KYC by providing us with their country of residence and other personal identification information.”

The spokesperson added, “Binance employees are explicitly forbidden from suggesting or supporting users in circumventing their local laws and regulatory policies, and would be immediately dismissed or audited if found to have violated those policies.”

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CNBC also reached out to the Binance employees and Angels named in this article. One told CNBC to contact Binance’s PR team. The rest did not reply.

Public compliance, private evasion

In 2021, after China banned cryptocurrency, Bloomberg reported that Binance had stopped letting Chinese mobile phone numbers register. The company told Bloomberg that it had blocked Chinese IP addresses as well. 

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But Chinese customers have continued to seek ways to trade on Binance, which include using instructions provided by employees and volunteers. In some cases, these instructions rely on virtual private networks, or VPNs, software that can disguise the user’s location and send messages through the Chinese Internet firewall.

In May 2022, in a support channel on Binance’s Discord server, a user asked “How can mainland users register now?”

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A person using the handle Yaya and identifying as a Binance employee told them to activate their VPN and register as a Taiwanese resident, then switch their nationality back to China. The employee also suggested avoiding using VPN nodes in the “United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong.” Binance officially restricts access to certain products in those countries.

Messages obtained by CNBC from Binance’s Chinese-language Discord server.

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CNBC

User #1: How can mainland users register now?
yaya.z: [How to register for mainland clients]:
Clients need to use a VPN that excludes IP addresses from restricted regions such as the United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Then use overseas email (Outlook, Gmail, ProtonMail) to register. Please choose Taiwan as a place of residence; then switch back to China at the authentication phase, then upload the mainland ID card.

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There are steps that exchanges can and should take to prevent VPN use, said Neel Maitra, a partner at law firm Wilson Sonsini and a former SEC senior special counsel for cryptocurrency issues.

“Most best practices by exchanges also account for common evasive behaviors,” Maitra told CNBC. “While it is true an exchange cannot necessarily prevent or effectively police all possible forms of evasion, I think most regulators would require that they police against the most common evasive forms.”

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Binance told CNBC it had implemented “advanced detection tools” to root out users in “restricted and sanctioned regions that had access to sophisticated masking tools including VPNs.”

In other cases, the advice does not rely on a VPN.

In Dec. 2022, a person with the handle Stella, who was identified as a Binance community manager in the company’s online marketing materials, posted messages in a server-wide announcement channel, explaining how people could use a specialized “VPN-free” domain name and download an app which appears to be specifically tailored for customers in mainland China to use Binance services.

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CNBC was provided the link to this app from an email address with a binance.com domain. A reporter was able to download the app from a location within China without a VPN, and register using a Chinese phone number. The app is hosted on Tencent, which offers a cloud computing service popular within China, and offers the ability to purchase crypto from other Binance customers in prices denominated in Chinese yuan, using the popular Chinese apps WeChat or Alipay. It also has options to submit Chinese identity documents for KYC verification.

Binance told CNBC it does not offer a specialized version of its app for Chinese customers. “‘Binance does not offer a ‘Binance Chinese Android app,” a spokesperson said. “There is only one official Binance app.”

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More often, employees appear to refer questions about KYC to Binance Angels, creating a gap between the company and potential regulatory violations, messages reviewed by CNBC show. Binance has emphasized that Angels “are not representatives of Binance.”

“Our role is limited, and we do not speak on Binance’s behalf,” an Angel said in a Binance blog post.

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But Binance’s Chinese-language Angels go through a separate training process that takes up to a year, according to a Binance hiring page. They’re vetted, trained, and deployed across Binance’s Telegram and Discord groups, operating under the supervision of Binance employees.

Reuters has previously reported on how Binance offers their Angels crypto discounts for their work.

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In one Oct. 2022 exchange reviewed by CNBC, an Angel advised a user who was having trouble accessing the specialized Binance websites that were supposed to work within mainland China.

That Angel told the user to switch their VPN to a different region and try again.

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“How do users in mainland China register their accounts?” another user asked in a Mar. 2022 message.

“Register with an overseas email address,” the same Angel responded, before telling the user to pick Taiwan as their residence.

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That volunteer offered similar guidance to other customers. In Apr. 2022, another purported mainland China resident asked “What could I do if proof of residence is required? Can I change my place of residence?”

“Proof of registered residence is not required,” this Angel responded.

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In another case, a purported mainland resident worried about uploading their Chinese identity documents, messages from March 2022 show. The same Angel reassured the user they could claim to be in Taiwan but still submit a Chinese identity card, and Binance wouldn’t stop them.

“[Binance] doesn’t do business on the mainland, but it can’t stop mainland users from bypassing the great firewall to play,” the Angel assured the user.

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Angels also teach users about the exchange’s offerings, best practices, and the blockchain.

In one question-and-answer lesson from Apr. 2022, two Binance Angels showed Chinese users how they could participate in Launchpad, Binance’s IPO-like product for new crypto tokens.

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Chinese residents are prohibited from participating in initial exchange offerings under Chinese laws, including a specific ban on initial coin offerings.

“How do mainland users participate in Launchpad?” the Angel leading the session asked, rhetorically.

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Several users said it was impossible.

But other participants in the Q&A, including a different Angel, said registering a foreign company or with foreign KYC would let mainland users sidestep Binance’s controls.

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“Congratulations to this top student,” the session-leading Angel responded to the user who answered “overseas company” the fastest.

In comment to CNBC about the findings in this article, Binance reiterated that the Angels are not employees.

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“Binance Angel Program is a community ambassador program, no different than the community ambassadors that operate on other platforms like Wikipedia and Reddit. Binance Angels are not given access to Binance equipment or Binance internal systems, nor do they have the authority to speak for Binance. Binance Angels are forbidden from sharing recommendations that are against our company policies or the law and would be immediately removed from the Binance Angel Program if they were found doing so.”

The Palau dodge

Palau launched its digital residency program in 2022 in an effort to modernize physical identity cards, rolling out an NFT-linked identity card that’s available for a few hundred U.S. dollars annually.

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In a 2022 visit to the archipelago, Zhao called it a “very innovative” effort.

But Palau’s program also lets users around the world access Binance using their Palau “residency” to hide their country of citizenship and residency.

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Customers openly referred to Palau’s program as a way to sidestep Binance’s country-specific controls, according to Telegram and Discord messages CNBC reviewed.

When users asked how to access products and currencies otherwise unavailable to Chinese residents, Angels guided them to an Oct. 2022 tweet from a handle that belongs to a Binance client relationship manager, according to a Binance customer who worked with them. That tweet, which has since been deleted, linked to a third-party Mandarin YouTube guide on using the Palau residency to pass Binance’s European Union KYC controls, even if the user lived outside the EU.

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“Passing” allowed users to apply for Binance’s restricted Visa debit card, which lets them turn their crypto into fiat currency for use anywhere. (Visa declined to provide comment for this story.)

Specifically, the third-party video walks users through how to register with Palau, purchase the Palau ID, and upload the ID to Binance’s exchange. It then shows a user how to create a placeholder mail-forwarding Austrian address. Then, it offers an apparently genuine bank statement from the video creator’s German bank account, and explains how to modify the bank statement to include the Austrian address. Forging the bank statement takes nothing more than a PDF editor, according to the video’s creator.

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In Nov. 2022, one user who said they were in mainland China inquired about the Binance Card, messages from the Discord server show. An Angel directed them to the video, and suggested it would help them get it.

In comment to CNBC, Binance says it did not have any part in creating the video guide. “That video is not a Binance-owned piece of content, nor is the content creator a Binance employee or even a Binance Angel.”

The technique of using fake Austrian credentials was well-known enough to be discussed in other chats in Nov. and Dec. 2022, although some of these chats did not make specific reference to this video.

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One Binance employee warned an applicant not to apply for the Binance debit card “casually,” noting, “Some users said their accounts were banned after attempts to change their addresses to unauthorized countries.”

The customer reassured the Binance employee that they had used Austrian bank statements.

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Similarly, in Dec. 2022 messages on Binance’s Chinese-language Telegram group, users complained that they couldn’t get a Binance debit card.

“If you are Chinese, you can’t,” one user said.

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Another user guided them to a different video that used the same false proof-of-address and took advantage of an account from the same German bank.

“What if you can’t produce the relevant documents?” the creator of this second video asked rhetorically. “You can join my Telegram group. Someone in my group provides this service which can help you customize this address certificate.”

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Or, the creator continued, mainland users could obtain “proof of address” or “overseas professional customization” on Taobao, a Chinese marketplace.

Regulatory and compliance experts told CNBC they were alarmed by how easily Binance users were able to fake KYC credentials.

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“I’m sitting at main Justice, or the National Security Council, I get very concerned hearing this. If I’m sitting at the IRS, I get very concerned about this,” Meghji told CNBC.

Richards told CNBC that any unauthorized access to Binance would concern the exchange’s traditional financial partners, from Visa to a customer’s bank. If a user tried to withdraw funds from Binance into a JP Morgan Chase checking account, for example, it might cause some concern.

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“Chase would look at the source of funds and see that they’re coming from Binance,” Richards said. “And if they know that Binance is suspect, then the source of funds could be seen as suspect.”

CNBC asked Binance for comment on the substance of all the reporting in this article, and shared several specific posts and messages in the process. All of those messages and posts, including the Binance employee’s Tweet sharing the how-to video, were deleted after CNBC provided them to Binance.

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In addition, hours after Binance responded to CNBC, messages apeared on Twitter suggesting that some customers’ Binance debit cards had been frozen.

“Why is my Binance card frozen?” the customer asked in Chinese.

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The employee told the customer to take their concerns to Binance’s banking partner.

“How do Binance applicants know which bank is issuing the card?” the user retorted.

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— CNBC’s Hakyung Kim contributed to this report.

Bitcoin tumbles as regulators order Paxos to stop minting Binance stablecoin: CNBC Crypto World





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