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.
In late August 2012, an operation titled Bitcoin Savings and Trust was shut down by the owner, leaving around US$5.6 million in bitcoin-based debts; this led to allegations that the operation was a Ponzi scheme. In September 2012, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had reportedly started an investigation on the case.
Legal Gray Area. Major governments have largely remained on the sidelines, and this has created both a sense of potential and apprehension for Bitcoin proponents and critics respectively. Bitcoin isn’t backed by a regulatory agency and a government would technically be ceding power by supporting a decentralized currency. This has been largely officially unaddressed. Bitcoin’s price, however, tends to be very sensitive to any news concerning the US government’s opinion of cryptocurrencies. For example, when the SEC denied the approval of bitcoin-based exchange-traded-products—essentially bitcoin-backed assets on the stock market—in 2017, Bitcoin’s price dropped 18%. Yet while the price and adoption of Bitcoin would be affected by government action, governments are unable to criminalize Bitcoin. In fact, governments such as the United States and China have invested in it at some capacity.
In 2013 and 2014, the European Banking Authority and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a United States self-regulatory organization, warned that investing in bitcoins carries significant risks. Forbes named bitcoin the best investment of 2013. In 2014, Bloomberg named bitcoin one of its worst investments of the year. In 2015, bitcoin topped Bloomberg's currency tables.
Bitcoin's journey continued slowly at first, but it hit the mainstream in 2013 after the first of several hyperinflation incidents occurred in the currency. In late 2013, the cryptocurrency spike in value from around $100 per coin to $1,000 in just over a month, before halving in value over the next three or four months. Bitcoin would not hit $1,000 again until 2017.
The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.