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Are cryptocurrencies real money?

Blockchain technology and Bitcoin

With modern computers, the twenty-first century solution to securing private information is to encrypt it in a chain of code that can never be altered without permission from all the users.  This blockchain encryption technology works because the entire user world will be alerted if anyone tries to change the information.

The first use of blockchain was to encrypt and secure holdings of a currency called bitcoin, the world's first decentralized digital currency that didn't need a central bank or central monetary authority to control its use.  Bitcoin was invented by an anonymous computer pioneer with the name of Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009.

The open-source software was structured to allow anyone, at any time, to see who owns what in the bitcoin world.  The system allows for anonymity because the owners of bitcoin can use pseudonyms, keeping their real identities secure in encrypted form.

Purpose of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies

The purpose of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies was to have a user-to-user payment system that avoided the cost and control of a central authority.

When the owner of a bitcoin decides to purchase something, the system is updated to reflect the transfer from buyer to seller.  The transaction takes place via the buyer's and seller's bitcoin wallets, but the ownership change is embedded in the blockchain for everyone to see and verify.  Once the transaction is verified, it cannot be retracted.

Like transactions in cash and gold, one of the major appeals of cryptocurrency payments is that they can be made in total anonymity, without any central bank or monetary authority getting involved.  This is why many countries have moved to ban cryptocurrencies, fearing that they can easily be used to pay for illegal goods, such as drugs or stolen guns.

A possible solution would be to create a cryptocurrency that requires users to be transparent about their identity.  This could be an ideal defense against money laundering, tax evasion and other illicit activities because every transactions would be seen and verified by users.

Many people have been reluctant to start using cryptocurrencies, saying that they would never hold a currency that has no intrinsic value.  Their values are now nothing more than what people are willing to pay for them.

How are cryptocurrencies created?  

Bitcoins, like may other cryptocurrencies, are put into the circulation by miners, who are required to undertake complex computer calculations in order to receive the new bitcoins.  The costs of maintaining the bitcoin protocol system would become increasingly large as bitcoin becomes more and more accepted as a means of payment.  It was therefore, decided to give the new bitcoins to those willing to do the work necessary to keep the system up and running.

Anyone can become a bitcoin miner.  The first bitcoins were mined mainly by individuals, but by the late 2010s, the amount of computing power required to perform the calculations had become so large that only big consortiums and companies were mining new bitcoins.  The energy used by the massive server farms completing the calculations has been estimated to be equivalent to the entire energy consumption of Ireland.  And as the computers doing the mining become more efficient, the calculations are purposefully being made more complicated to control the supply of new bitcoins.

Major security risks

There are major security risks inherent in holding a large amount of wealth in cryptocurrencies that can be transferred in a moment to an anonymous user.   

  • Several cryptocurrency millionaires were kidnapped in the late 20010s with the express purpose of getting the victim to transfer large amounts of their assets.  These crimes ended with millions of dollars' worth of ransom being paid directly into the kidnappers' encrypted accounts, never to be traced.
  • In 2019, $40 million of cryptocurrency was stolen from a trading platform called Binance when several of the platform's users' "keys" were hacked, similar to the way credit card users' date is hacked from retail stores' databases.

Transactions becoming expensive and taking too long to be processed

Another hurdle to wide acceptance of bitcoin is that transactions are becoming more and more expensive and taking a longer time to be processed.   With average costs for small transfers approaching the 2-3 percent sellers have to pay for most credit card transactions, bitcoin is becoming less of a viable alternative.

High volatility of cryptocurrencies.

The final issue is the high volatility of cryptocurrencies.   Unless a cryptocurrency holder is a risk-friendly investor, it may be better - for the moment at least - to stick to traditional investments like stocks, bonds and real estate.  During some periods of the 2010s, bitcoin had price swings several times greater than those of gold, the S&P 500 or the U.S. dollar.  One of the biggest hurdles to wide acceptance of many cryptocurrencies has been their high volatility.

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