On 6 August 2010, a major vulnerability in the bitcoin protocol was spotted. Transactions weren't properly verified before they were included in the transaction log or blockchain, which let users bypass bitcoin's economic restrictions and create an indefinite number of bitcoins. On 15 August, the vulnerability was exploited; over 184 billion bitcoins were generated in a transaction, and sent to two addresses on the network. Within hours, the transaction was spotted and erased from the transaction log after the bug was fixed and the network forked to an updated version of the bitcoin protocol. This was the only major security flaw found and exploited in bitcoin's history.
Bitcoin's blockchain can be loaded with arbitrary data. In 2018 researchers from RWTH Aachen University and Goethe University identified 1,600 files added to the blockchain, 59 of which included links to unlawful images of child exploitation, politically sensitive content, or privacy violations. "Our analysis shows that certain content, eg, illegal pornography, can render the mere possession of a blockchain illegal."
Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency: Balances 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.
Researchers have pointed out at a "trend towards centralization". Although bitcoin can be sent directly to the bitcoin network, 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.
The domain name "bitcoin.org" was registered on 18 August 2008. In November 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.
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. One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionth 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.
Josiah is an assistant editor at CCN. A former ancient and medieval literature teacher, he has been reporting on cryptocurrency since 2014. He lives in rural North Carolina with his wife and children. He holds investment positions in bitcoin and other large-cap cryptocurrencies. Follow him on Twitter @Y3llowb1ackbird or email him directly at josiah.wilmoth(at)ccn.com.
In March the bitcoin transaction log called the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with differing rules on how transactions were accepted. For six hours two bitcoin networks operated at the same time, each with its own version of the transaction history. The core developers called for a temporary halt to transactions, sparking a sharp sell-off. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software. The Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the exchange rate briefly dipped by 23% to $37 as the event occurred before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours. In the US, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (or MSBs), that may be subject to registration and other legal obligations.
In September 2015, the establishment of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ledger (ISSN 2379-5980) was announced. It covers studies of cryptocurrencies and related technologies, and is published by the University of Pittsburgh. The journal encourages authors to digitally sign a file hash of submitted papers, which will then be timestamped into the bitcoin blockchain. Authors are also asked to include a personal bitcoin address in the first page of their papers.
More recently, at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, global economist and New York University professor Nouriel Roubini said, "Crypto is the mother or father of all scams and bubbles." He called out "swindlers" who tapped into investors' fear of missing out and took them for a ride with "crappy assets that went into a bust and crash — in a matter of months — like you have not seen in any history of financial bubbles."