What is Cryptocurrency?
A cryptocurrency (or crypto currency) is a digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange using cryptography to secure the transactions and to control the creation of additional units of the currency. Cryptocurrencies are classified as a subset of digital currencies and are also classified as a subset of alternative currencies and virtual currencies.
Bitcoin became the first decentralized cryptocurrency in 2009. Since then, numerous cryptocurrencies have been created. These are frequently called altcoins, as a blend of bitcoin alternative. Bitcoin and its derivatives use decentralized control as opposed to centralized electronic money/centralized banking systems. The decentralized control is related to the use of bitcoin’s blockchain transaction database in the role of a distributed ledger.
Decentralized cryptocurrency is produced by the entire cryptocurrency system collectively, at a rate which is defined when the system is created and which is publicly known. In centralized banking and economic systems such as the Federal Reserve System, corporate boards or governments control the supply of currency by printing units of fiat money or demanding additions to digital banking ledgers. In case of decentralized cryptocurrency, companies or governments cannot produce new units, and have not so far provided backing for other firms, banks or corporate entities which hold asset value measured in it. The underlying technical system upon which decentralized cryptocurrencies are based was created by the group or individual known as Satoshi Nakamoto.
As of March 2015, hundreds of cryptocurrency specifications exist; most are similar to and derived from the first fully implemented decentralized cryptocurrency, bitcoin. Within cryptocurrency systems the safety, integrity and balance of ledgers is maintained by a community of mutually distrustful parties referred to as miners: members of the general public using their computers to help validate and timestamp transactions adding them to the ledger in accordance with a particular timestamping scheme.
The security of cryptocurrency ledgers is based on the assumption that the majority of miners are honestly trying to maintain the ledger, having financial incentive to do so.
Most cryptocurrencies are designed to gradually decrease production of currency, placing an ultimate cap on the total amount of currency that will ever be in circulation, mimicking precious metals. Compared with ordinary currencies held by financial institutions or kept as cash on hand, cryptocurrencies can be more difficult for seizure by law enforcement. This difficulty is derived from leveraging cryptographic technologies. A primary example of this new challenge for law enforcement comes from the Silk Road case, where Ulbricht’s bitcoin stash “was held separately and … encrypted.” Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin are pseudonymous, though additions such as Zerocoin have been suggested, which would allow for true anonymity.
History of Cryptocurrency
The first cryptocurrency was Bitcoin. Bitcoin was created in 2009 by a pseudonymous developer named Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin uses SHA-256, which is a set of cryptographic hash functions designed by the U.S National Security Agency. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that is based on the proof-of-work system.
In April 2011, Namecoin, the first altcoin, was created to form a decentralized DNS to make internet censorship more difficult. In October 2011, Litecoin was released and became the first successful cryptocurrency to use scrypt as its hash function rather than SHA-256. This gave the general public the ability to mine for litecoins without the purchase of specific hardware such as the ASIC machines used to mine Bitcoin.
Litecoin began receiving media attention in late 2013 – reaching a market cap of $1 billion. Ripplecoin, created in 2011, was built on the same protocol as Bitcoin but services as a payment system – think of it like a Paypal for cryptocurrencies that supports any fiat currency, cryptocurrency, commodity or even frequent flier miles.
The legal status of cryptocurrencies varies substantially from country to country and is still undefined or changing in many of them. While some countries have explicitly allowed their use and trade, others have banned or restricted it. Likewise, various government agencies, departments, and courts have classified bitcoins differently. China Central Bank banned the handling of bitcoins by financial institutions in China during an extremely fast adoption period in early 2014. In Russia, though cryptocurrencies are legal, it is illegal to actually purchase goods with any currency other than the Russian ruble.
On March 25, 2014, the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruled that bitcoin will be treated as property for tax purposes as opposed to currency. This means bitcoin will be subject to capital gains tax. One benefit of this ruling is that it clarifies the legality of bitcoin. No longer do investors need to worry that investments in or profit made from bitcoins are illegal or how to report them to the IRS. 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.
Legal issues not dealing with governments have also arisen for cryptocurrencies. Coinye, for example, is an altcoin that used rapper Kanye West as its logo without permission. Upon hearing of the release of Coinye, originally called Coinye West, attorneys for Kanye West sent a cease and desist letter to the email operator of Coinye, David P. McEnery Jr. The letter stated that Coinye was willful trademark infringement, unfair competition, cyberpiracy, and dilution and instructed Coinye to stop using the likeness and name of Kanye West.
Concerns of an unregulated global economy
As the popularity of and demand for online currencies increases since the inception of bitcoin in 2009, so do concerns that such an unregulated person to person global economy that cryptocurrencies offer may become a threat to society. Concerns abound that altcoins may become tools for anonymous web criminals.
Cryptocurrency networks display a marked lack of regulation that attracts many users who seek decentralized exchange and use of currency; however the very same lack of regulations has been critiqued as potentially enabling criminals who seek to evade taxes and launder money.
Transactions that occur through the use and exchange of these altcoins are independent from formal banking systems, and therefore can make tax evasion simpler for individuals. Since charting taxable income is based upon what a recipient reports to the revenue service, it becomes extremely difficult to account for transactions made using existing cryptocurrencies, a mode of exchange that is complex and (in some cases) impossible to track.
Systems of anonymity that most cryptocurrencies offer can also serve as a simpler means to launder money. Rather than laundering money through an intricate net of financial actors and offshore bank accounts, laundering money through altcoins stands outside institutions and can be achieved through anonymous transactions. Laundering services for cryptocurrency exist to service the bitcoin currency, in which multiple sourced bitcoins are blended to obscure the relationship between input and output addresses.