Bitcoin reevaluated

The Thinker by Rodin

In December 2013 I looked at Bitcoin and called it libertarian bit nonsense. Like most pundits, I’m not good at admitting I was wrong. But I was wrong about Bitcoin. In December 2013 a Bitcoin was worth about $716. As of today one Bitcoin is worth about $3250. (See this index chart.) So if bought a Bitcoin in December 2013 and traded it today for U.S. dollars, your return on investment would be 354%. That’s an annual return of 96%. You are not going to get that sort of return from an S&P 500 index fund.

The dates I picked were random so coins bought at other times might have lost money. In truth if you had bought a Bitcoin in December 2013 you would have to have waited until November 2016 to see a positive return on your investment. For the last year or so though Bitcoin appears to be picking up real traction, taking the new currency to surreal highs.

One reason I was wrong in 2013 is that back then I did not anticipate its major use. Back then it was used for shady transactions but existed on the fringes of this world. Bitcoin seems to have found its niche as a method for facilitating ransomware. Illicit hackers are using it to get money from you when they do things like hijack your computer and won’t let you access key parts of it until you pay them sufficient Bitcoins. (Even then it works only about half the time.) If they asked for dollars or yen then hiding their tracks would be much harder. Making you go out and buy Bitcoins and then sending it to them though makes anonymous electronic thievery much more possible and practical. While each transaction is recorded in the Bitcoin itself, there is no mechanism in the transaction to positively identify the buyer and seller. Thus it’s much harder to catch electronic thieves at work.

I doubt these thieves hang onto their Bitcoins. Bitcoins are still a hassle to trade. Bitcoin exchanges are few and their trustworthiness not to mention solvency are problematic. Thieves probably don’t see the Bitcoins they collect as investment since they are hard to spend on real world goods and services. Most likely they are quickly converted into a local currency where they are then used to buy goods and services.

As a libertarian currency, Bitcoin is having some success. It is theoretically money that can be stored and used independent of taxation, although legitimate sellers that accept Bitcoins probably have to charge taxes on Bitcoin transactions. The percent of sellers that accept Bitcoins though is still tiny, which provides evidence that their value comes from being able to transmit value relatively free from prying eyes. This is one aspect of cash that allows it to endure into the 21st century.

So while Bitcoins may appeal to the libertarians among us, its primary usage is probably to facilitate crime, thus its value and surging price. The harder it becomes to trade illicit money with conventional currencies, the more valuable Bitcoins become, since there are a finite number of Bitcoins out there. Most governments are getting quite good at monitoring transactions of conventional currency. Transactions that are too large result in inquiries that may slow down or stop the transfer of money. With Bitcoins this is currently not much of an issue. Governments are getting better at regulating these transactions. At one time China blocked Bitcoin transactions altogether. They are accepted on certain Chinese exchanges now, but China is proposing to make Bitcoin exchanges subject to money laundering laws and to collect information verifying the identity of buyers and sellers exchanging Bitcoins.

As I noted in 2013, the more a Bitcoin is traded, the larger its digital fingerprint becomes. Some of these coins are becoming so digitally huge that they are inefficient to verify it is a legitimate coin. This is frustrating to many in this community, which is causing other more practical digital currencies to emerge like Ethereum. Currencies like Ethereum try to address issues like the huge blockchains in many Bitcoins and to build in features like identifying buyers and sellers and a limited blockchain ledger. If they gain traction then this undercuts Bitcoin’s ability to keep these transactions confidential.

Whether Bitcoin or some other form of digital currency, all such currencies that rely on blockchain technology are inherently risky, for the same reason that I noted in 2013: they are potentially hackable because they are encrypted. So far to our knowledge no one has successfully hacked into a Bitcoin. If it happens though that a hacking algorithm or a quantum leap in computing power reveals an easy way to mine new Bitcoins then the coin should drop in value precipitously and become essentially worthless. However, if a coin can be “minted” by a provable and legitimate source, say a country’s equivalent of a Federal Reserve, then such digital currency should hold value. This could be done by such organizations holding a registrar of coins it has “minted” that are publicly electronically available.

If that happens though then the onus for having a Bitcoin also goes away, as its value is in its surreptitiousness. Electronic coins that only go through legitimate exchanges and follow policies for tracking and handling illicit uses become essentially legitimate currencies because they are issued and accepted by trusted institutions.

So there are likely to be many more digital coins in our future. Bitcoin’s future as an electronic currency though is likely coming to an end as it becomes computationally inefficient to record transactions with Bitcoins and as advancements in computers, like potential quantum computing potentially render obsolete our current methods of encrypting data, making the encryption keys faster to crack.

Bitcoin’s time has arrived but with its success it is also likely quickly passing into obsolescence. What comes next is unknown but any permanent way of electronically storing untraceable electronic value was probably always myth.

Ashley Madison stupidly lets itself get pwned

The Thinker by Rodin

So I have been streaming Mad Men on Netflix. It’s a strangely compelling series about the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. It’s a world of constant drinking, endless cigarettes and infidelity. The principle character is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the creative director for the advertising firm Sterling & Cooper. As we quickly learn, Don was previously Dick, he is a deeply messed up man, and he also happens to be one hunk of a guy. Don’s a liberal drinker, a liberal smoker and a liberal bed hopper as well. He does this while somehow staying married to his ultra pretty and slinky wife Betty (January Jones).

It takes a few seasons but Betty eventually figures out Don’s infidelities. They divorce but Don keeps bedding the women, often inappropriately, including his secretary. Yet Don is hardly the only character in the series with his pants down. Most of the characters are involved in an illicit relationship or two. I have no idea how close any of this is to real life on Madison Avenue, but from what I’ve read it was not too far off the mark. Most of the men are caught between who they really are and the roles they are supposed to play. How they manage all this screwing around in these pre-Ashley Madison days is kind of mysterious, but likely all that booze helped reduce inhibitions.

Yesterday of course the infidelity website ashleymadison.com quickly went dark after hackers posted a dump of its database on a number of websites. While bad for cheaters out there, what it said about Ashley Madison was even worse. First, its security system was laughably bad. Second, even after the hack they could have taken down their site and saved their forty million members embarrassment, but they didn’t. They kept collecting fees right up until they went dark. In short, they gave the online infidelity business not only a moral stink but in an unexpected way: they were so busy chasing short term profits that they were willing to throw its forty million customers on mercy of their spouses. Doubtless the hackers provided samples to prove they had hacked the good stuff, including apparently seven years of credit card transactions. AM was hoping they would blink.

Doubtless too that marital counselors and divorce lawyers are going to get a sharp increase in business. It would not surprise me if their phones were ringing off the hooks. As for AM, I wouldn’t blame its customers if they arrived en masse to torch its offices. Cheaters of the world, unite! Anyhow, fifty years after Mad Men, there are still plenty of Don Drapers out there that are mostly hooking up online. Until a couple of days ago apparently Ashley Madison had the lion’s share and then some of this market.

What interests me is not that AM brokered infidelity. As disgusting as most people at least claim to view infidelity and those that aid them, there are far worse things on the Internet, with ISIS beheading videos coming immediately to mind. Some entities like AM are to be expected in our electronic age. What’s interesting and more than a little appalling is how bad a job they did in keeping their clients’ information confidential. As a software engineer, but also as a guy that is currently getting paid to ghostwrite articles about data security, AM gets an F.

Yes, AM kept a record of all its credit card transactions for the last seven years! It’s such a mind boggling, stupid and reckless thing to do, particularly given the profitability of the site. It would have made much more sense to give in to the hackers’ demands and quietly establish a new site under a new name, oh and fix those security problems too. Doubtless they had the money to do it. Forty million customers, figure 30 million of them men, figure each putting out at least $50 each, that’s at least $150 million in revenue. Since they’ve been in business fifteen years, it’s likely a lot more than that. Likely their overall revenue likely exceeded a billion dollars, not that we’ll know for sure. They aren’t publicly traded, although maybe their successor or whoever buys the brand (Vivid Entertainment?) will be publicly traded, and doubtless do a better job at security.

If I had fewer scruples and more money I might create the next AM site, one that its dubious clients could actually trust. Of course there are always risks in anything done over the Internet. AM’s clients now understand that. The next AM is bound to arise from its ashes, and probably sooner rather than later. Here are some actions items for whatever entrepreneur wants to sail in these turbulent waters in the future:

  • Do not keep records of credit card transactions. Just don’t. Purge these daily, if not more often, from any internal databases. Don’t journal them on backup somewhere.
  • Do not collect any privacy information from your customers, you know like their real names, address and phone numbers. Instead, let some third party act as your broker. Your client gives the broker some money and the broker provides some electronic token identifying the payee that doesn’t actually identify them to your company. The future AM should never collect anything that could identify their clients.
  • Accept more discreet ways of payment. There are lower tech and anonymous ways to pay fees confidentially: wire deposits and money orders, for example. I’d say accept BitCoins but BitCoins are hardly anonymous.
  • Don’t use cloud hosting. Use your own data centers that only you can access and control.
  • One person can’t do this in his basement. So find employees who have a history of being trustworthy, very talented, and discreet and pay them very well. Give them incentives to be discreet. Make their bonuses contingent upon their contributions to improving the business’s security.
  • Retain security experts. To get AM’s entire database required a whole lot of bandwidth. This can be monitored. The tools exist to cut off suspicious behavior already.
  • Do regular vulnerability testing of your website and applications. The tools are out there. Of course fix any vulnerabilities found quickly.
  • Hire a CISO, a Chief Information Security Officer with of course the right credentials.
  • Don’t store obviously sensitive information, like a client’s IP address. Passwords should be encrypted in a MD5 hash in the database.
  • Tell your customers what your security plan is. Get an annual (or more often) security audit from a trusted security auditor and publicize the results for your customers.
  • Provide your customers security tips, like clearing your browser history. I can think of another one. Figure out a way for clients to share pictures anonymously. I’m pretty sure it could be done with Instagram.

As for AM’s clients, those who are not on their way to marital counseling or divorce court, you might consider picking up strangers at bars again or just plastering them with lots of alcohol in the privacy of your office. It sounds cheaper and faster. It worked for Don Draper.

Mt. Gox: more evidence of why BitCoin is best avoided

The Thinker by Rodin

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz learned from Glinda that if she clicked her ruby slippers, closed her eyes and kept repeating “there’s no place like home” that she would magically return to Kansas. So simple! BitCoin adherents are a lot like Dorothy. Dorothy at least made it home from her fantastical journey. True believers in BitCoin, the libertarian currency, got a splash of cold water across their faces this week instead. Mt. Gox, the Tokyo-based BitCoin exchange, has gone belly up, along with about $300M in BitCoins. Most likely someone stole those BitCoins, either someone inside the firm or some shadowy hackers. By any standard, this was quite a heist. Looking at history, you’d have a hard time finding any instance of a similar theft inside what amounts to a bank.

In any case, sorry you BitCoin suckers. Real banks and exchanges still have vaults, but they don’t carry much of their assets in cash. Much of it is commercial paper, bonds, mortgage deeds, promissory notes and Federal Reserve Notes. Whether in paper, assets on an electronic register somewhere, or gold bars in a vault, these assets are quite tangible. Someone with a car loan who defaults on their payments is likely to find their car repossessed. Those who defaulted on home loans during the Great Recession found their houses foreclosed and if they had ready cash assets, they were put under legal assault. BitCoin owners with their BitCoins in Mt. Gox now have nothing and the police just aren’t interested in serving them justice.

This was not supposed to happen to this libertarian currency. Freed of its tie to governments, it was supposed to soar above inflation and always retain a finite empirical value. It was all secure and such through the power of math. After all, exchanging a BitCoin involves keeping a record of who its next owner is. Unless, of course, it just disappears. Undoubtedly these stolen BitCoins were converted into a real currency, just unbeknownst to its owners, and perhaps with the help of some money laundering exchange, perhaps Mt. Gox itself. BitCoin is after all the preferred currency of drug dealers, at least until their fingerprints have disappeared and they can convert the digital money into something more tangible and fungible, like U.S. dollars.

I keep my cash in a couple of credit unions and a bank. It’s unlikely that a credit union like Pentagon Federal, where I have a couple of accounts, is going to go under like Mt. Gox. In the unlikely event that it does, I’ll get my money back because it is backed up by what amounts to the full faith and credit of the United States. Mt. Gox was backed up by the full faith and credit of, well, Mt. Gox. It’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

And there’s the rub with BitCoin exchanges. When you create a currency detached from a government that will assert and protect its value, there is no one to complain to when your BitCoin bank goes bust. The government of Japan is looking into the event, but it is mostly hands off. It never promised to underwrite Mt. Gox, and Mt. Gox never asked it to. In any event, Japan underwrites its Yen, not BitCoins. Japan has a vested interest in keeping its currency solvent. It has no such interest in keeping another currency, particularly one it cannot control, solvent.

An exchange like Mt. Gox could of course seek out local governments for underwriting of their exchanges. Those BitCoin exchanges and banks that want to remain viable are going to have to do something just like this. Good luck with that. In doing so though they are of course defeating the whole purpose of BitCoin. BitCoin is about a libertarian ideal; it’s about money having a value independent of government apron strings. Affiliate the BitCoin currency in a BitCoin exchange with a government, and you tacitly admit that BitCoin is not a libertarian currency after all. In short, you have to give up the notion that money can be decoupled from government control.

It’s unlikely that many governments will be willing to protect BitCoin exchanges. It is reasonable to protect assets that you can actually control: your national currency. For a government to protect a BitCoin currency, it is reasonable to expect that they would also be able to control the amount of BitCoins in circulation and set rules for their use and misuse. They can’t do that, which means that they would be asked to put the good faith and credit of their country against an erratic currency that could prove digitally worthless at any time. This strikes me as a foolish thing to do, but there may be entrepreneurial countries out there, say, the Cayman Islands, that will take the plunge. The risk might be worth the rewards.

I don’t think you have to worry about governments like Germany, England, Japan, China and the United States doing something this foolish. If there is any organization that might see profit in this, it will probably be the Mafia, or other criminal syndicates, many of who are already using BitCoins as a mechanism for money laundering.

Doubtless other BitCoin exchanges will work real hard to sell trust that is now deservedly absent from these exchanges. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it’s going to be a hard sell given that BitCoin’s value is essentially based on faith in its mathematics and algorithms.

Absent from the minds of BitCoin true believers is an understanding that money must be tied to a governmental entity to be real money. It’s tied to governments for many reasons, but primarily because governments are required to govern, and this includes having the ability to enforce its laws and to collect taxes. Money is based on the idea that entities can force everyone to play by the same rules, including using the same currency as a means of exchange within the country for lawful debts. The truth is, there are no rules with BitCoin other than its math. It is a lawless currency. That Mt. Gox’s treasury of BitCoins can be plundered with impunity proves it.

Libertarianism is built on the idea of caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. No warranties are expressed or implied, but even if they are expressed they depend on the trust of the seller. No one can force the seller to do squat. The best a buyer can hope for is to track the thief down and take justice with his fists or a gun. That’s no way to run an economy, which is why libertarianism is an ideology that simply does not work in the real world.

Again, a word to the wise: just say no to BitCoins.

Bitcoin is libertarian bit nonsense

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you intrigued by Bitcoin? It’s a digital currency much in the news these days. It even got a hearing on Capitol Hill last month. Surprisingly the foundation overseeing Bitcoin came out relatively unscathed. Some places are accepting Bitcoins as payment for actual goods and services. They do so on the assumption the currency has value. Like any other currency it has value because some people assert it has value.

Which raises the question, what is its value? There are clearly things you can do with Bitcoin that are convenient. It’s a sort of digital cash for our electronic age. Only it’s not really cash. Real cash doesn’t leave fingerprints. You make a Bitcoin transaction and the transaction is recorded in the coin itself.

If there is value in Bitcoin, maybe it is from the faith we place in its math. There is not much we trust anymore, but you can still trust math, and Bitcoin depends on math, not to mention encryption algorithms, to assert its value. The number of Bitcoins has a finite limit because of the power of math and algorithms. Each attempt to mint a new Bitcoin requires lots of computers to spend lots of time and use lots of energy. For all its electronic novelty, it’s hardly an environmentally friendly currency. In fact, it’s bad for the environment.

You can’t say that about gold. Granted, the process of getting gold out of the ground is often bad for the environment, but once you have it, there it is, probably to sit in highly protected bank vaults and never to be actually moved or for that matter seen. A Bitcoin is entirely virtual but it depends on lots of computer hardware to mint and to assert its value. You won’t be creating one of these with a pad of paper and a slide rule. In fact, a Bitcoin is entirely dependent on computers and high speed networks. No wonder then that it was abruptly devalued last week when China blocked Bitcoin transactions. Keep it from being used in the world’s most populous country and it has lot less utility. Of course, it’s useless to anyone without a computer or some sort of digital device, not to mention some network so you can trade the currency. So it’s not even universal. You can’t say that about the U.S. dollar.

The larger question is whether a currency built on nothing but math really can have value. It does have value at the moment, as I can actually trade Bitcoins for U.S. dollars, which in my country is what everyone accepts as currency. In the long run though I think Bitcoins are going to be worthless. I don’t plan to own any of them and maybe I can make a case why you shouldn’t either.

First, there is whether counterfeit Bitcoins can be created. New ones can be minted if you have the computer horsepower and these are “legal”, but if they can be created for virtually no computer time then they would be counterfeit. Call me suspicious but I bet either the NSA has already figured out a way to hack it or will soon. In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Second, there’s the question of what its value represents. I’ve discussed the value of money before. My conclusion is that money essentially represents faith that the country coining the currency will remain solvent and viable. I based this conclusion on the observation that currency value falls whenever these assumptions are shaken. Having a currency based on the gold standard doesn’t seem to make any difference, as the United States has been off the gold standard since the 1970s. Printing new currency doesn’t seem to be that big a deal either, providing the new currency is used to acquire assets of value. This is what the Federal Reserve has been doing since the Great Recession: creating money (none of it actually printed, apparently) and using it to buy long term securities like mortgage-backed securities. Curiously, just printing money is not inflationary when it is used to buy tangible goods. This is providing that the institution printing the money is trusted, and the Federal Reserve is trusted. In any event, investors can value or devalue a currency based on examining its monetary system and the country’s economy. With Bitcoins, you can’t do this. It is backed by no country, which is its appeal to its adherents.

What is Bitcoin really about then? It’s about a political idea; more specifically it’s about libertarianism. It’s trying to be a means by which libertarianism becomes institutionalized. If you are not familiar with libertarianism, it’s all about freedom, buyer beware and minimal (and ideally no) government. Libertarians (at least the committed ones) are vesting their wealth in Bitcoins because it’s how they show loyalty to the cause. They want money to be frictionless and outside governmental control. Arguably, Bitcoin does a good job with this, providing buyers and sellers will accept it as having value.

But libertarianism is an idea, not a thing. Libertarianism is really more of a verb than a noun. A currency though has to be based on something real. The U.S. dollar is essentially backed up by the collective wealth of all of us who possess dollars, or assets valued in dollars, or really any property within the United States. It’s based on something tangible. You buy a house in dollars instead of Bitcoins because everyone in the transaction has faith that those dollars mean something. This is because everyone else is trading in dollars too to buy real goods and services. If the U.S. dollar gets too low, there are things we can do about it. We can petition Congress or the White House to take action. There is no one to go to to complain about the sinking value of your Bitcoins. Assuming the currency cannot be counterfeited, its only value is its finiteness, enforced by math and increasingly expensive computational processes to make new coins. That’s it. As those libertarians say, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Bitcoin buyers, caveat emptor!

This tells me something important: Bitcoin is a bogus currency, at least in the long term. Yes, you can buy stuff with it now, but only from a very limited number of sellers: those who have faith in the idea of a libertarian currency. It’s obvious to me that libertarianism is just not doable as a sustainable way of governing. I have no faith it in whatsoever because its philosophical underpinnings do not actually work in the real world.

I would like to see it in Glenn Beck’s libertarian community, however, if it ever gets built. One thing is for sure, no one is going to build it for Bitcoins. They are going to demand U.S. dollars.