Criminals love cryptocurrencies. Should you?


The irresponsible libertarian rationale for all manner of bad behavior – popular in Silicon Valley – has found its greatest expression in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and its ilk. The anonymity of cryptocurrencies had made ransomware a global criminal enterprise.

Digital mirage

Currencies are traditionally a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. Cryptocurrencies are bad at all three.

Yes, they are a medium of exchange, but try to buy a house with one. Painful.

As a store of value they are extremely unstable, since there is no underlying asset, such as the full faith and credit of a nation. Which directly reflects on the third use of currency – a unit of account – how do you maintain a set of books with a currency whose value is ever shifting?

If you own a cryptocurrency and aren’t a criminal, you’re a speculator. To see how that ends, check out Tulip Mania.

Anonymity is the problem today

Good arguments can be made for a digital global currency, although that has serious problems too, as the Euro has demonstrated. The real problem is the anonymity that enables criminals to collect multi-million dollar ransoms without fear of being tracked down and brought to justice. 

How is that a good thing?

The bigger problem

Suppose you are a billionaire. You’ve gotten comfortable with evaluating risks, knowing that you can deploy a phalanx of Ivy league lawyers at $1,000 an hour to make your case and hold off the law. 

Gosh. Untraceable digital money. No more paying mules to haul cash across national borders. Pay foreign law firms to create shell companies to hide assets – private island, superyacht, arms dealing, drugs, sex trafficking – with untraceable cash. Yum!

Yeah, the local tax authorities might get lucky and figure out what you’ve done, but really, they don’t have the expertise. Unregulated digital currencies are empowering a whole new level of criminal.

Plus, they’ve been hacked

Much of the technical interest in cryptocurrencies is due to the blockchain data structure, a supposedly unhackable storage technology that preserves, forever, the history of a particular coin. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, the blockchain may not be hackable, but the supporting infrastructure surely is. 

Beyond that, one of these days quantum computing will leave computer science labs and enable the decryption – and rewriting – of cryptographically protected blockchains. 

Sorry, Mr. Boris owns your Bitcoin, not you. It says so right here.

The Take

I’ve been watching cryptocurrencies for years. I get the attraction. But it’s now clear — the Colonial pipe line shutdown is only the latest example — that they need policing. Anonymity, at least, must end.

I suspect that with policing, much of the attraction will disappear. Oh well. 

It doesn’t matter how much technobabble surrounds a bad idea. It’s still a bad idea.

Comments welcome. If you think cryptocurrencies are wonderful, please tell me, in as few words as you can manage, why. I’m listening.

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