Central to the appeal and function of Bitcoin is the blockchain technology it uses to store an online ledger of all the transactions that have ever been conducted using bitcoins, providing a data structure for this ledger that is exposed to a limited threat from hackers and can be copied across all computers running Bitcoin software. Every new block generated must be verified by the ledgers of each user on the market, making it almost impossible to forge transaction histories. Many experts see this blockchain as having important uses in technologies such as online voting and crowdfunding, and major financial institutions such as JPMorgan Chase see potential in cryptocurrencies to lower transaction costs by making payment processing more efficient. However, because cryptocurrencies are virtual and do not have a central repository, a digital cryptocurrency balance can be wiped out by a computer crash if a backup copy of the holdings does not exist, or if somebody simply loses their private keys.
On 25 March 2014, the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruled that bitcoin will be treated as property for tax purposes. This means bitcoin will be subject to capital gains tax. In a paper published by researchers from Oxford and Warwick, it was shown that bitcoin has some characteristics more like the precious metals market than traditional currencies, hence in agreement with the IRS decision even if based on different reasons.
Another type of physical wallet called a hardware wallet keeps credentials offline while facilitating transactions. The hardware wallet acts as a computer peripheral and signs transactions as requested by the user, who must press a button on the wallet to confirm that they intended to make the transaction. Hardware wallets never expose their private keys, keeping bitcoins in cold storage even when used with computers that may be compromised by malware.:42–45
Wallets and similar software technically handle all bitcoins as equivalent, establishing the basic level of fungibility. Researchers have pointed out that the history of each bitcoin is registered and publicly available in the blockchain ledger, and that some users may refuse to accept bitcoins coming from controversial transactions, which would harm bitcoin's fungibility. For example, in 2012, Mt. Gox froze accounts of users who deposited bitcoins that were known to have just been stolen.
Cryptocurrencies hold the promise of making it easier to transfer funds directly between two parties in a transaction, without the need for a trusted third party such as a bank or credit card company; these transfers are facilitated through the use of public keys and private keys for security purposes. In modern cryptocurrency systems, a user's "wallet," or account address, has the public key, and the private key is used to sign transactions. Fund transfers are done with minimal processing fees, allowing users to avoid the steep fees charged by most banks and financial institutions for wire transfers.
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.
The semi-anonymous nature of cryptocurrency transactions makes them well-suited for a host of nefarious activities, such as money laundering and tax evasion. However, cryptocurrency advocates often value the anonymity highly. Some cryptocurrencies are more private than others. Bitcoin, for instance, is a relatively poor choice for conducting illegal business online, and forensic analysis of bitcoin transactions has led authorities to arrest and prosecute criminals. More privacy-oriented coins do exist, such as Dash, ZCash, or Monero, which are far more difficult to trace.
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Bitcoin prices were negatively affected by several hacks or thefts from cryptocurrency exchanges, including thefts from Coincheck in January 2018, Coinrail and Bithumb in June, and Bancor in July. For the first six months of 2018, $761 million worth of cryptocurrencies was reported stolen from exchanges. Bitcoin's price was affected even though other cryptocurrencies were stolen at Coinrail and Bancor as investors worried about the security of cryptocurrency exchanges.