The Bitcoin Roller Coaster

February 10, 2014

Back in November, The Official Merchant Services Blog dove into the Bitcoin currency craze with an in-depth look at Bitcoin mining.
Bitcoin, introduced in 2008 by a programmer or group of programmers under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, has no central issuing authority and uses a public ledger to verify encrypted transactions. It is a virtual currency that can be bought, sold and mined electronically.

The Hammer is Dropped

We focused on the technological gimmick that is Bitcoin mining – essentially powering multiple computers to create the virtual currency from virtually nothing. The rest of the media since then has been concentrating on the other aspects of Bitcoin, including its use as a money laundering tool. In that same month of November, Federal prosecutors in New York filed charges against Ross William Ulbricht for running the Silk Road website, where customers allegedly used Bitcoins to buy and sell drugs.

And on February 9, Florida stepped into the spotlight concerning virtual currency and money laundering. Bitcoin traders. Florida prosecutors have charged three men, saying that their use of a site called violates laws against unlicensed money transmitters, according to a report in the Krebs on Security blog.

Bitcoin Banned in Russia

More bad news for Bitcoin came from Sochi Olympics host country Russia. The country banned Bitcoin altogether. Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office recently made its stance on Bitcoin abundantly clear. “Systems for anonymous payments and cyber currencies that have gained considerable circulation — including the most well-known, Bitcoin — are money substitutes and cannot be used by individuals or legal entities,” the office said in a recent press release reported by Reuters. Any use of Bitcoin will be considered “potentially suspicious,” as the Russian government has linked Bitcoin usage to illicit activities.

Russia is only the latest country to release a statement detailing its position on Bitcoin. In early December, China barred financial institutions from using Bitcoin, though it didn’t ban the currency outright. In late January, Canada released a statement that said Bitcoin is not legal tender in the country. Countries like these have expressed skepticism in Bitcoin not only because of its links to money laundering, but also for its overall volatility.


Market Troubles

Bitcoin has plunged more than 8 per cent after a Tokyo-based exchange halted withdrawals of the digital currency, citing technical malfunction. Mt. Gox, a popular exchange for dollar-based trades, said in a blog post it needed to “temporarily pause on all withdrawal requests to obtain a clear technical view of the currency processes.”

It promised an “update” – not a reopening – on Monday, February 10, Japan time. Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox said customers can take out cash “as normal” and it’s working to resolve technical issues that prompted it to halt withdrawals of the digital currency.

“It’s not about cash at all, only about Bitcoin,” Michael Keferl, a communications officer for Tokyo-based Mt. Gox, said. “There is a problem in the way transactions are verified.”

Things then rebounded. The price of Bitcoin rose 0.3 percent to $683.66 at 9:07 a.m. London time, according to the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index, which averages prices from exchanges including Mt. Gox.

Bitcoin App Dropped by Apple

On February 5, Apple struck a blow against Bitcon. The Blockchain app, downloaded 120,000 times during its two years in Apple’s iTunes App Store, was the most popular way for people and companies to transfer bitcoins from one another. Apple removed it from the store on February 5. Blockchain immediately shot back with a statement, accusing Apple of getting overly aggressive with future competitors. Apple is rumored to be developing its own mobile payment system.

And Speaking of …

With the crazy ups and downs of Bitcoin, one thing is undeniable: Virtual currency is a profitable new marketplace. Which means Apple isn’t the only group trying to develop their own alternative. An untraceable currency called Zerocoin is being designed by Johns Hopkins University researchers to compete with other virtual moneys such as Bitcoin. The researchers say that if virtual currencies are going to exist, there should be one that provides the same kind of privacy that people have when exchanging traditional forms of money.

What Does This all Mean?

The virtual currency movement has the potential to be the next stage in the evolution of payments and transaction processing.
Advocates say such digital currencies, made possible by complex computer formulas, will eventually be widely embraced by users who want to exchange money instantly and directly, without a bank as middleman.

While it may seem like the wild west in terms of security and long term viability, the concept of virtual currency is actually well in line with what we’re already surrounded with as consumers. By and large we continually swipe plastic through card readers when we buy everything from a coffee at Wawa to a down payment on a new automobile. So a paperless and coinless world is already one in which we exist. It’s not hard to envision a next step where the currency itself is virtual.

But that does leave security issues which are relevant and real. Relying on even the best encryption still leaves risk and susceptibility to fraud.

However, it seems governments are still playing catch up to the technology itself. Focusing on money laundering and the instability the anonymous exchange of currency brings to the banks themselves, as well as the sale of illegal goods and services. All of which are certainly part of their purview. It’s just a weird transition period as the infrastructure of the old school banking system doesn’t seem all that prepared to deal with the fluidity of a virtual currency snaking through the world’s consumers.

In short, it’s an interesting time to bear witness to the evolution of money and the marketplace. Governments will catch up with virtual currency. And consumers will embrace convenience more and more until we face a world that may actually give up on paper and coins completely, in favor of your PIN numbers and some encryption codes that store the value of you.

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