Bitcoin (BTC) is known as the first open-source, peer-to-peer, digital cryptocurrency that was developed and released by a group of unknown independent programmers named Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008. Cryptocoin doesn’t have any centralized server used for its issuing, transactions and storing, as it uses a distributed network public database technology named blockchain, which requires an electronic signature and is supported by a proof-of-work protocol to provide the security and legitimacy of money transactions. The issuing of Bitcoin is done by users with mining capabilities and is limited to 21 million coins. Currently, Bitcoin’s market cap surpasses $138 billion and this is the most popular kind of digital currency. Buying and selling cryptocurrency is available through special Bitcoin exchange platforms or ATMs.
Cryptocurrencies are systems that allow for the secure payments of online transactions that are denominated in terms of a virtual "token," representing ledger entries internal to the system itself. "Crypto" refers to the fact that various encryption algorithms and cryptographic techniques, such as elliptical curve encryption, public-private key pairs, and hashing functions, are employed.
On 3 January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block. Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the text "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks". This note references a headline published by The Times and has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.:18
Researchers have pointed out at a "trend towards centralization". Although bitcoin can be sent directly from user to user, in practice intermediaries are widely used.:220–222 Bitcoin miners join large mining pools to minimize the variance of their income.:215, 219–222:3 Because transactions on the network are confirmed by miners, decentralization of the network requires that no single miner or mining pool obtains 51% of the hashing power, which would allow them to double-spend coins, prevent certain transactions from being verified and prevent other miners from earning income. As of 2013 just six mining pools controlled 75% of overall bitcoin hashing power. In 2014 mining pool Ghash.io obtained 51% hashing power which raised significant controversies about the safety of the network. The pool has voluntarily capped their hashing power at 39.99% and requested other pools to act responsibly for the benefit of the whole network. Between 2017 and 2019 over 70% of the hashing power and 90% of transactions were operating from China.
On 1 August 2017, a hard fork of bitcoin was created, known as Bitcoin Cash. Bitcoin Cash has a larger block size limit and had an identical blockchain at the time of fork. On 24 October 2017 another hard fork, Bitcoin Gold, was created. Bitcoin Gold changes the proof-of-work algorithm used in mining, as the developers felt that mining had become too specialized.
Cryptocurrencies have been compared to Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes and economic bubbles, such as housing market bubbles. Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management stated in 2017 that digital currencies were "nothing but an unfounded fad (or perhaps even a pyramid scheme), based on a willingness to ascribe value to something that has little or none beyond what people will pay for it", and compared them to the tulip mania (1637), South Sea Bubble (1720), and dot-com bubble (1999).
The proof-of-work system, alongside the chaining of blocks, makes modifications of the blockchain extremely hard, as an attacker must modify all subsequent blocks in order for the modifications of one block to be accepted. As new blocks are mined all the time, the difficulty of modifying a block increases as time passes and the number of subsequent blocks (also called confirmations of the given block) increases.
Various journalists, economists, and the central bank of Estonia have voiced concerns that bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme. In April 2013, Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, stated that "a real Ponzi scheme takes fraud; bitcoin, by contrast, seems more like a collective delusion." A July 2014 report by the World Bank concluded that bitcoin was not a deliberate Ponzi scheme.:7 In June 2014, the Swiss Federal Council:21 examined the concerns that bitcoin might be a pyramid scheme; it concluded that, "Since in the case of bitcoin the typical promises of profits are lacking, it cannot be assumed that bitcoin is a pyramid scheme." In July 2017, billionaire Howard Marks referred to bitcoin as a pyramid scheme.
The term altcoin has various similar definitions. Stephanie Yang of The Wall Street Journal defined altcoins as "alternative digital currencies," while Paul Vigna, also of The Wall Street Journal, described altcoins as alternative versions of bitcoin. Aaron Hankins of the MarketWatch refers to any cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin as altcoins.
In the blockchain, bitcoins are registered to bitcoin addresses. Creating a bitcoin address requires nothing more than picking a random valid private key and computing the corresponding bitcoin address. This computation can be done in a split second. But the reverse, computing the private key of a given bitcoin address, is mathematically unfeasible. Users can tell others or make public a bitcoin address without compromising its corresponding private key. Moreover, the number of valid private keys is so vast that it is extremely unlikely someone will compute a key-pair that is already in use and has funds. The vast number of valid private keys makes it unfeasible that brute force could be used to compromise a private key. To be able to spend their bitcoins, the owner must know the corresponding private key and digitally sign the transaction. The network verifies the signature using the public key; the private key is never revealed.:ch. 5
Properties of cryptocurrencies gave them popularity in applications such as a safe haven in banking crises and means of payment, which also led to the cryptocurrency use in controversial settings in the form of online black markets, such as Silk Road. The original Silk Road was shut down in October 2013 and there have been two more versions in use since then. In the year following the initial shutdown of Silk Road, the number of prominent dark markets increased from four to twelve, while the amount of drug listings increased from 18,000 to 32,000.
The validity of each cryptocurrency's coins is provided by a blockchain. A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a hash pointer as a link to a previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. By design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is "an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way". For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.