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.
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 can be mined or purchased from cryptocurrency exchanges. Not all e-commerce sites allow purchases using cryptocurrencies. In fact, cryptocurrencies, even popular ones like Bitcoin, are hardly used for retail transactions. However, the skyrocketing value of cryptocurrencies has made them popular as trading instruments. To a limited extent, they are also used for cross-border transfers.
Central to the appeal and functionality of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is blockchain technology. As its name indicates, 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.
Fiat currencies derive their authority as a medium of 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 of the world.
Cryptocurrencies were introduced with the intent to revolutionize financial infrastructure. As with every revolution, however, there are tradeoffs involved. At the current stage of development for cryptocurrencies, there are many differences between the theoretical ideal of a decentralized system with cryptocurrencies and its practical implementation.
Cryptocurrencies represent a new, decentralized paradigm for money. In this system, centralized intermediaries, such as banks and monetary institutions, are not necessary to enforce trust and police transactions between two parties.
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