Bitcoin (₿) is a cryptocurrency. It is a decentralized digital currency without a central bank or single administrator that can be sent from user to user on the peer-to-peer bitcoin network without the need for intermediaries.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented in 2008 by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto and started in 2009 when its source code was released as open-source software. Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. Research produced by University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.
Bitcoin has been criticized for its use in illegal transactions, its high electricity consumption, price volatility, and thefts from exchanges. Some economists, including several Nobel laureates, have characterized it as a speculative bubble. Bitcoin has also been used as an investment, although several regulatory agencies have issued investor alerts about bitcoin.
The domain name “bitcoin.org” was registered on 18 August 2008. On 31 October 2008, a link to a paper authored by Satoshi Nakamoto titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System was posted to a cryptography mailing list. Nakamoto implemented the bitcoin software as open-source code and released it in January 2009. Nakamoto’s identity remains unknown.
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.
The receiver of the first bitcoin transaction was cypherpunk Hal Finney, who had created the first reusable proof-of-work system (RPoW) in 2004. Finney downloaded the bitcoin software on its release date, and on 12 January 2009 received ten bitcoins from Nakamoto.
Other early cypherpunk supporters were creators of bitcoin predecessors: Wei Dai, creator of b-money, and Nick Szabo, creator of bit gold. In 2010, the first known commercial transaction using bitcoin occurred when programmer Laszlo Hanyecz bought two Papa John’s pizzas for ₿10,000.
Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency. Balances of Bitcoin tokens are kept using public and private “keys,” which are long strings of numbers and letters linked through the mathematical encryption algorithm that was used to create them. The public key (comparable to a bank account number) serves as the address which is published to the world and to which others may send bitcoins. The private key (comparable to an ATM PIN) is meant to be a guarded secret and only used to authorize Bitcoin transmissions. Bitcoin keys should not be confused with a Bitcoin wallet, which is a physical or digital device which facilitates the trading of Bitcoin and allows users to track ownership of coins. The term “wallet” is a bit misleading, as Bitcoin’s decentralized nature means that it is never stored “in” a wallet, but rather decentrally on a blockchain.
Style notes: according to the official Bitcoin Foundation, the word “Bitcoin” is capitalized in the context of referring to the entity or concept, whereas “bitcoin” is written in the lower case when referring to a quantity of the currency (e.g. “I traded 20 bitcoin”) or the units themselves. The plural form can be either “bitcoin” or “bitcoins.” Bitcoin is also commonly abbreviated as “BTC.”
How Bitcoin Works
Bitcoin is one of the first digital currencies to use peer-to-peer technology to facilitate instant payments. The independent individuals and companies who own the governing computing power and participate in the Bitcoin network, also known as “miners,” are motivated by rewards (the release of new bitcoin) and transaction fees paid in bitcoin. These miners can be thought of as the decentralized authority enforcing the credibility of the Bitcoin network. New bitcoin is being released to the miners at a fixed, but periodically declining rate, such that the total supply of bitcoins approaches 21 million. Currently, there are roughly 3 million bitcoins which have yet to be mined. In this way, Bitcoin (and any cryptocurrency generated through a similar process) operates differently from fiat currency; in centralized banking systems, currency is released at a rate matching the growth in goods in an attempt to maintain price stability, while a decentralized system like Bitcoin sets the release rate ahead of time and according to an algorithm.
Bitcoin mining is the process by which bitcoins are released into circulation. Generally, mining requires the solving of computationally difficult puzzles in order to discover a new block, which is added to the blockchain. In contributing to the blockchain, mining adds and verifies transaction records across the network. For adding blocks to the blockchain, miners receive a reward in the form of a few bitcoins; the reward is halved every 210,000 blocks. The block reward was 50 new bitcoins in 2009 and is currently 12.5. As more and more bitcoins are created, the difficulty of the mining process – that is, the amount of computing power involved – increases. The mining difficulty began at 1.0 with Bitcoin’s debut back in 2009; at the end of the year, it was only 1.18. As of October 2019, the mining difficulty is over 12 trillion. Once, an ordinary desktop computer sufficed for the mining process; now, to combat the difficulty level, miners must use expensive, complex hardware like Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) and more advanced processing units like Graphic Processing Units (GPUs). These elaborate mining processors are known as “mining rigs.”
One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionths of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a Satoshi. If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.
What’s a Bitcoin Worth?
In 2017 alone, the price of Bitcoin rose from a little under $1,000 at the beginning of the year to close to $19,000, ending the year more than 1,400% higher. More recently, the cryptocurrency has declined in value and more-or-less plateaued, save for a few periods of relatively lower price figures (the early portion of 2019, when prices hovered around $3500) and relatively higher ones (June and July of 2019, when prices briefly peaked at over $13,000). As of October 2019, Bitcoin seems to have found a new price point in the range of $8,000 to $9,000.
Bitcoin’s price is quite dependent on the size of its mining network, since the larger the network is, the more difficult – and thus more costly – it is to produce new bitcoins. As a result, the price of bitcoin has to increase as its cost of production also rises. The Bitcoin mining network’s aggregate processing power is known as the “hash rate,” referring to the number of times per second the network can attempt to complete a hashing puzzle necessary before a block can be added to the blockchain. As of October 23, 2019, the network reached a record high 114 quintillion hashes per second.
Bitcoin is decentralized:
- Bitcoin does not have a central authority.
- There is no central server; the bitcoin network is peer-to-peer.
- There is no central storage; the bitcoin ledger is distributed.
- The ledger is public; anybody can store it on their computer.
- There is no single administrator; the ledger is maintained by a network of equally privileged miners.
- Anybody can become a miner.
- The additions to the ledger are maintained through competition. Until a new block is added to the ledger, it is not known which miner will create the block.
- The issuance of bitcoins is decentralized. They are issued as a reward for the creation of a new block.
- Anybody can create a new bitcoin address (a bitcoin counterpart of a bank account) without needing any approval.
- Anybody can send a transaction to the network without needing any approval; the network merely confirms that the transaction is legitimate.
Trend towards centralization
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.
Bitcoin miners join large mining pools to minimize the variance of their income.
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. 2017 over 70% of the hashing power and 90% of transactions were operating from China.
According to researchers, other parts of the ecosystem are also “controlled by a small set of entities”, notably the maintenance of the client software, online wallets and simplified payment verification (SPV) clients.
Bitcoin is pseudonymous, meaning that funds are not tied to real-world entities but rather bitcoin addresses. Owners of bitcoin addresses are not explicitly identified, but all transactions on the blockchain are public. In addition, transactions can be linked to individuals and companies through “idioms of use” (e.g., transactions that spend coins from multiple inputs indicate that the inputs may have a common owner) and corroborating public transaction data with known information on owners of certain addresses. Additionally, bitcoin exchanges, where bitcoins are traded for traditional currencies, may be required by law to collect personal information. To heighten financial privacy, a new bitcoin address can be generated for each transaction.
Who Invented Bitcoin?
No one knows who invented Bitcoin, or at least not conclusively. Satoshi Nakamoto is the name associated with the person or group of people who released the original Bitcoin white paper in 2008 and worked on the original Bitcoin software that was released in 2009. The Bitcoin protocol requires users to enter a birthday upon signup, and we know that an individual named Satoshi Nakamoto registered and put down April 5 as a birth date. In the years since that time, many individuals have either claimed to be or have been suggested as the real-life people behind the pseudonym, but as of October 2019, the true identity (or identities) behind Satoshi remains obscured.
Though it is tempting to believe the media’s spin that Satoshi Nakamoto is a solitary, quixotic genius who created Bitcoin out of thin air, such innovations do not typically happen in a vacuum. All major scientific discoveries, no matter how original-seeming, were built on previously existing research. There are precursors to Bitcoin: Adam Back’s Hashcash, invented in 1997, and subsequently Wei Dai’s b-money, Nick Szabo’s bit gold and Hal Finney’s Reusable Proof of Work. The Bitcoin whitepaper itself cites Hashcash and b-money, as well as various other works spanning several research fields. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the individuals behind the other projects named above have been speculated to have also had a part in creating Bitcoin.
Why Is Satoshi Anonymous?
There are two primary motivations for keeping Bitcoin’s inventor keeping his or her or their identity secret. One is privacy. As Bitcoin has gained in popularity – becoming something of a worldwide phenomenon – Satoshi Nakamoto would likely garner a lot of attention from the media and from governments.
The other reason is safety. Looking at 2009 alone, 32,489 blocks were mined; at the then-reward rate of 50 BTC per block, the total payout in 2009 was 1,624,500 BTC, which is worth $13.9 billion as of October 25, 2019. One may conclude that only Satoshi and perhaps a few other people were mining through 2009 and that they possess a majority of that stash of BTC. Someone in possession of that much Bitcoin could become a target of criminals, especially since bitcoins are less like stocks and more like cash, where the private keys needed to authorize spending could be printed out and literally kept under a mattress. While it’s likely the inventor of Bitcoin would take precautions to make any extortion-induced transfers traceable, remaining anonymous is a good way for Satoshi to limit exposure.
Major media outlets, cryptocurrency experts and other enthusiasts have ventured guesses as to the individual or group behind the persona of Satoshi Nakamoto. On Oct. 10, 2011, The New Yorker published an article speculating that Nakamoto might be Irish cryptography student Michael Clear or economic sociologist Vili Lehdonvirta. A day later, Fast Company suggested that Nakamoto could be a group of three people – Neal King, Vladimir Oksman and Charles Bry – who together appear on a patent related to secure communications that were filed two months before bitcoin.org was registered. A Vice article published in May 2013 added more suspects to the list, including Gavin Andresen, the Bitcoin project’s lead developer; Jed McCaleb, co-founder of now-defunct Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox; and famed Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki.
In December 2013, Techcrunch published an interview with researcher Skye Grey who claimed textual analysis of published writings shows a link between Satoshi and bit-gold creator Nick Szabo. And perhaps most famously, in March 2014, Newsweek ran a cover article claiming that Satoshi is actually an individual named Satoshi Nakamoto – a 64-year-old Japanese-American engineer living in California. More recently, Australian computer scientist and cryptocurrency proponent Craig Wright has claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto – although Wright also has claimed that Nakamoto plagiarized his 2008 thesis on the topic of crypocurrencies.
After a decade of Bitcoin, the world still does not know who is behind the world’s top digital currency, and it’s possible that the mystery will never be solved.
Can Satoshi’s Identity Be Proven?
It would seem even early collaborators on the project don’t have verifiable proof of Satoshi’s identity. To reveal conclusively who Satoshi Nakamoto is, a definitive link would need to be made between his/her activity with Bitcoin and his/her identity. That could come in the form of linking the party behind the domain registration of bitcoin.org, email and forum accounts used by Satoshi Nakamoto, or ownership of some portion of the earliest mined bitcoins. Even though the bitcoins Satoshi likely possesses are traceable on the blockchain, it seems he/she has yet to cash them out in a way that reveals his/her identity. If Satoshi were to move his/her bitcoins to an exchange today, this might attract attention, but it seems unlikely that a well-funded and successful exchange would betray a customer’s privacy.
Receiving Bitcoins As Payment
Bitcoins can be accepted as a means of payment for products sold or services provided. If you have a brick and mortar store, just display a sign saying “Bitcoin Accepted Here” and many of your customers may well take you up on it; the transactions can be handled with the requisite hardware terminal or wallet address through QR codes and touch screen apps. An online business can easily accept bitcoins by just adding this payment option to the others it offers, like credit cards, PayPal, etc. Online payments will require a Bitcoin merchant tool (an external processor like Coinbase or BitPay).
Working For Bitcoins
Those who are self-employed can get paid for a job in bitcoins. There are several websites/job boards which are dedicated to the digital currency:
- Cryptogrind brings together work seekers and prospective employers through its website
- Coinality features jobs – freelance, part-time and full-time – that offer payment in bitcoins, as well as other cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin and Litecoin
- Jobs4Bitcoins, part of reddit.com
Investing in Bitcoins
There are many Bitcoin supporters who believe that digital currency is the future. Many of those who endorse Bitcoin believe that it facilitates a much faster, no-fee payment system for transactions across the globe. Although it is not backed by any government or central bank, bitcoin can be exchanged for traditional currencies; in fact, its exchange rate against the dollar attracts potential investors and traders interested in currency plays. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the growth of digital currencies like Bitcoin is that they can act as an alternative to national fiat money and traditional commodities like gold.
In March 2014, the IRS stated that all virtual currencies, including bitcoins, would be taxed as property rather than currency. Gains or losses from bitcoins held as capital will be realized as capital gains or losses, while bitcoins held as inventory will incur ordinary gains or losses. The sale of bitcoins that you mined or purchased from another party, or the use of bitcoins to pay for goods or services are examples of transactions which can be taxed.
Like any other asset, the principle of buying low and selling high applies to bitcoins. The most popular way of amassing the currency is through buying on a Bitcoin exchange, but there are many other ways to earn and own bitcoins.
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