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.
Cryptocurrencies are systems that allow for secure payments online which are denominated in terms of virtual “tokens,” which are represented by ledger entries internal to the system. “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.
Types of Cryptocurrency
The first blockchain-based cryptocurrency was Bitcoin, which still remains the most popular and most valuable. Today, there are thousands of alternate cryptocurrencies with various functions and specifications. Some of these are clones or forks of Bitcoin, while others are new currencies that were built from scratch.
Bitcoin was launched in 2009 by an individual or group known by the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. As of November 2021, there were over 18.8 million bitcoins in circulation with a total market cap of around $1.2 trillion, with the figure updating frequently. Only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist, preventing both inflation and manipulation.
Decentralized cryptocurrency is produced by the entire cryptocurrency system collectively, at a rate that is defined when the system is created and which is publicly known. In centralized banking and economic systems such as the US Federal Reserve System, corporate boards or governments control the supply of currency. In the 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 May 2018, over 1,800 cryptocurrency specifications existed. Within a proof-of-work cryptocurrency system such as Bitcoin, the safety, integrity, and balance of ledgers is maintained by a community of mutually distrustful parties referred to as miners: who use their computers to help validate and timestamp transactions. Adding them to the ledger in accordance with a particular timestamping scheme. In a proof-of-stake (PoS) blockchain, transactions are validated by holders of the associated cryptocurrency, sometimes grouped together in stake pools.
Most cryptocurrencies are designed to gradually decrease the production of that currency, placing a cap on the total amount of that currency that will ever be in circulation. Compared with ordinary currencies held by financial institutions or kept as cash on hand, cryptocurrencies can be more difficult for seizure by law enforcement.
Criticism of Cryptocurrency
Since market prices for cryptocurrencies are based on supply and demand, the rate at which a cryptocurrency can be exchanged for another currency can fluctuate widely, since the design of many cryptocurrencies ensures a high degree of scarcity.
Bitcoin has experienced some rapid surges and collapses in value, climbing as high as $17,738 per Bitcoin in Dec. 2017 before dropping to $7,575 in the following month. Cryptocurrencies are thus considered by some economists to be a short-lived fad or speculative bubble.
There is concern that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are not rooted in any material goods. Some research, however, has identified that the cost of producing a Bitcoin, which requires an increasingly large amount of energy, is directly related to its market price.
Cryptocurrency blockchains can be highly secure, but other aspects of a cryptocurrency ecosystem, including exchanges and wallets, are not immune to the threat of hacking. In Bitcoin’s 10-year history, several online exchanges have been the subject of hacking and theft, sometimes with millions of dollars worth of “coins” stolen.
Nonetheless, many observers see potential advantages in cryptocurrencies, like the possibility of preserving value against inflation and facilitating exchange while being easier to transport and divide than precious metals and existing outside the influence of central banks and governments.