Cryptocurrencies are digital or virtual currencies underpinned by cryptographic systems. They enable secure online payments without the use of third-party intermediaries. “Crypto” refers to the various encryption algorithms and cryptographic techniques that safeguard these entries, such as elliptical curve encryption, public-private key pairs, and hashing functions. Cryptocurrencies can be mined or purchased from cryptocurrency exchanges. Not all eCommerce sites allow purchases using cryptocurrencies. In fact, cryptocurrencies, even popular ones like Bitcoin, are hardly used for retail transactions.
What is Cryptocurrency?
A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that is secured by cryptography, which makes it nearly impossible to counterfeit or double-spend. Many cryptocurrencies are decentralized networks based on blockchain technology—a distributed ledger enforced by a disparate network of computers. A defining feature of cryptocurrencies is that they are generally not issued by any central authority, rendering them theoretically immune to government interference or manipulation.
Central to the appeal and functionality of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is blockchain technology. As its name indicates, a blockchain is essentially a set of connected blocks or an online ledger. Each block contains a set of transactions that have been independently verified by each member of the network. Every new block generated must be verified by each node before being confirmed, making it almost impossible to forge transaction histories. The contents of the online ledger must be agreed upon by the entire network of an individual node, or computer maintaining a copy of the ledger.
Types of Cryptocurrency
Bitcoin is the most popular and valuable cryptocurrency. An anonymous person called Satoshi Nakamoto invented it and introduced it to the world via a white paper in 2008. There are thousands of cryptocurrencies present in the market today. Each cryptocurrency claims to have a different function and specification. For example, Ethereum’s ether markets itself as gas for the underlying smart contract platform. Ripple’s XRP is used by banks to facilitate transfers between different geographies. Bitcoin, which was made available to the public in 2009, remains the most widely traded and covered cryptocurrency. As of November 2021, there were over 18.8 million bitcoins in circulation with a total market cap of around $1.2 trillion. Only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist.
Is Cryptocurrency Legal?
Fiat currencies derive their authority as mediums of the transaction from the government or monetary authorities. For example, each dollar bill is backstopped by the Federal Reserve. But cryptocurrencies are not backed by any public or private entities. Therefore, it has been difficult to make a case for their legal status in different financial jurisdictions throughout the world. It doesn’t help matters that cryptocurrencies have largely functioned outside most existing financial infrastructure. The legal status of cryptocurrencies has implications for their use in daily transactions and trading. In June 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommended that wire transfers of cryptocurrencies should be subject to the requirements of its Travel Rule, which requires AML compliance. As of December 2021, El Salvador was the only country in the world to allow Bitcoin as legal tender for monetary transactions. In the rest of the world, cryptocurrency regulation varies by jurisdiction.
Future of Cryptocurrency
A cryptocurrency that aspires to become part of the mainstream financial system may have to satisfy widely divergent criteria. It would need to be mathematically complex (to avoid fraud and hacker attacks) but easy for consumers to understand; decentralized but with adequate consumer safeguards and protection; and preserve user anonymity without being a conduit for tax evasion, money laundering, and other nefarious activities. Since these are formidable criteria to satisfy, is it possible that the most popular cryptocurrency in a few years could have attributes that fall in between heavily-regulated fiat currencies and today’s cryptocurrencies?
The emergence of Bitcoin has sparked a debate about its future and that of other cryptocurrencies. Despite Bitcoin’s recent issues, its success since its 2009 launch has inspired the creation of alternative cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, Litecoin, and Ripple. A cryptocurrency that aspires to become part of the mainstream financial system would have to satisfy very divergent criteria. While that possibility looks remote, there is little doubt that Bitcoin’s success or failure in dealing with the challenges it faces may determine the fortunes of other cryptocurrencies in the years ahead.