What is Bitcoins, How It Works? The Financial Action Task Force Issues Bitcoin Guidelines, Warns about Money Laundering

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency that enables instant payments to anyone, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin uses peer-to-peer technology to operate with no central authority: transaction management and money issuance are carried out collectively by the network.

The original Bitcoin software by Satoshi Nakamoto was released under the MIT license. Most client software, derived or "from scratch", also use open source licensing.

Bitcoin is the first successful implementation of a distributed crypto-currency, described in part in 1998 by Wei Dai on the cypherpunks mailing list. Building upon the notion that money is any object, or any sort of record, accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a given country or socio-economic context, Bitcoin is designed around the idea of using cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money, rather than relying on central authorities.

Why?

 
  • Bitcoins are sent easily through the Internet, without needing to trust any third party.
  • Transactions:
    • Are irreversible by design
    • Are fast. Funds received are available for spending within minutes.
    • Cost very little, especially compared to other payment networks.
  • The supply of bitcoins is regulated by software and the agreement of users of the system and cannot be manipulated by any government, bank, organization or individual. The limited inflation of the Bitcoin system's money supply is distributed evenly (by CPU power) to miners who help secure the network.

 

FAQ

 
Q. What is Bitcoin?

A. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer currency. Peer-to-peer means that no central authority issues new money or tracks transactions. These tasks are managed collectively by the network.

Q. How does Bitcoin work?

A. Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography, peer-to-peer networking, and proof-of-work to process and verify payments. Bitcoins are sent (or signed over) from one address to another with each user potentially having many, many addresses. Each payment transaction is broadcast to the network and included in the blockchain so that the included bitcoins cannot be spent twice. After an hour or two, each transaction is locked in time by the massive amount of processing power that continues to extend the blockchain. Using these techniques, Bitcoin provides a fast and extremely reliable payment network that anyone can use.

https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/FAQ 

Regulation of Bitcoin in Selected Jurisdictions

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This report surveys forty foreign jurisdictions and the European Union, reporting on any regulations or statements from central banks or government offices on the handling of bitcoins as well as any significant use of bitcoins in business transactions.   Topics covered include whether bitcoins are recognized as legal tender, the possibility of negative impacts on the national currency, concerns about fraud, and how transactions using the Bitcoin system are viewed by tax authorities.

Of those countries surveyed, only a very few, notably China and Brazil, have specific regulations applicable to bitcoin use.  There is widespread concern about the Bitcoin system’s possible impact on national currencies, its potential for criminal misuse, and the implications of its use for taxation.  Overall, the findings of this report reveal that the debate over how to deal with this new virtual currency is still in its infancy.

January 2014 Report, (PDF, 426KB) (Updates and additional countries have been added below.)

How does Bitcoin work?

This is a question that often causes confusion. Here's a quick explanation!

The basics for a new user

As a new user, you can get started with Bitcoin without understanding the technical details. Once you have installed a Bitcoin wallet on your computer or mobile phone, it will generate your first Bitcoin address and you can create more whenever you need one. You can disclose your addresses to your friends so that they can pay you or vice versa. In fact, this is pretty similar to how email works, except that Bitcoin addresses should only be used once.


Bitcoin

Balances - block chain

The block chain is a shared public ledger on which the entire Bitcoin network relies. All confirmed transactions are included in the block chain. This way, Bitcoin wallets can calculate their spendable balance and new transactions can be verified to be spending bitcoins that are actually owned by the spender. The integrity and the chronological order of the block chain are enforced with cryptography.

Transactions - private keys

A transaction is a transfer of value between Bitcoin wallets that gets included in the block chain. Bitcoin wallets keep a secret piece of data called a private key or seed, which is used to sign transactions, providing a mathematical proof that they have come from the owner of the wallet. The signature also prevents the transaction from being altered by anybody once it has been issued. All transactions are broadcast between users and usually begin to be confirmed by the network in the following 10 minutes, through a process called mining.

Processing - mining

Mining is a distributed consensus system that is used to confirm waiting transactions by including them in the block chain. It enforces a chronological order in the block chain, protects the neutrality of the network, and allows different computers to agree on the state of the system. To be confirmed, transactions must be packed in a block that fits very strict cryptographic rules that will be verified by the network. These rules prevent previous blocks from being modified because doing so would invalidate all following blocks. Mining also creates the equivalent of a competitive lottery that prevents any individual from easily adding new blocks consecutively in the block chain. This way, no individuals can control what is included in the block chain or replace parts of the block chain to roll back their own spends.

Going down the rabbit hole

 

This is only a very short and concise summary of the system. If you want to get into the details, you can read the original paper that describes the system's design, read the developer documentation, and explore the Bitcoin wiki.

Some things you need to know

If you are about to explore Bitcoin, there are a few things you should know. Bitcoin lets you exchange money in a different way than with usual banks. As such, you should take time to inform yourself before using Bitcoin for any serious transaction. Bitcoin should be treated with the same care as your regular wallet, or even more in some cases!

IconSecuring your wallet

Like in real life, your wallet must be secured. Bitcoin makes it possible to transfer value anywhere in a very easy way and it allows you to be in control of your money. Such great features also come with great security concerns. At the same time, Bitcoin can provide very high levels of security if used correctly. Always remember that it is your responsibility to adopt good practices in order to protect your money. Read more about securing your wallet.

IconBitcoin price is volatile

The price of a bitcoin can unpredictably increase or decrease over a short period of time due to its young economy, novel nature, and sometimes illiquid markets. Consequently, keeping your savings with Bitcoin is not recommended at this point. Bitcoin should be seen like a high risk asset, and you should never store money that you cannot afford to lose with Bitcoin. If you receive payments with Bitcoin, many service providers can convert them to your local currency.

IconBitcoin payments are irreversible

Any transaction issued with Bitcoin cannot be reversed, they can only be refunded by the person receiving the funds. That means you should take care to do business with people and organizations you know and trust, or who have an established reputation. For their part, businesses need to keep control of the payment requests they are displaying to their customers. Bitcoin can detect typos and usually won't let you send money to an invalid address by mistake. Additional services might exist in the future to provide more choice and protection for the consumer.

IconBitcoin is not anonymous

Some effort is required to protect your privacy with Bitcoin. All Bitcoin transactions are stored publicly and permanently on the network, which means anyone can see the balance and transactions of any Bitcoin address. However, the identity of the user behind an address remains unknown until information is revealed during a purchase or in other circumstances. This is one reason why Bitcoin addresses should only be used once. Always remember that it is your responsibility to adopt good practices in order to protect your privacy. Read more about protecting your privacy.

IconUnconfirmed transactions aren't secure

Transactions don't start out as irreversible. Instead, they get a confirmation score that indicates how hard it is to reverse them (see table). Each confirmation takes between a few seconds and 90 minutes, with 10 minutes being the average. If the transaction pays too low a fee or is otherwise atypical, getting the first confirmation can take much longer.

 

Confirm­ations Lightweight wallets Bitcoin Core
0 Only safe if you trust the person paying you
1 Somewhat reliable Mostly reliable
3 Mostly reliable Highly reliable
6 Minimum recommendation for high-value bitcoin transfers
30 Recommendation during emergencies to allow human intervention

 

IconBitcoin is still experimental

Bitcoin is an experimental new currency that is in active development. Each improvement makes Bitcoin more appealing but also reveals new challenges as Bitcoin adoption grows. During these growing pains you might encounter increased fees, slower confirmations, or even more severe issues. Be prepared for problems and consult a technical expert before making any major investments, but keep in mind that nobody can predict Bitcoin's future.

IconGovernment taxes and regulations

Bitcoin is not an official currency. That said, most jurisdictions still require you to pay income, sales, payroll, and capital gains taxes on anything that has value, including bitcoins. It is your responsibility to ensure that you adhere to tax and other legal or regulatory mandates issued by your government and/or local municipalities.

Bitcoin for Individuals

Bitcoin is the simplest way to exchange money at very low cost.

IconMobile payments made easy

Bitcoin on mobiles allows you to pay with a simple two step scan-and-pay. No need to sign up, swipe your card, type a PIN, or sign anything. All you need to receive Bitcoin payments is to display the QR code in your Bitcoin wallet app and let your friend scan your mobile, or touch the two phones together (using NFC radio technology).

IconSecurity and control over your money

Bitcoin transactions are secured by military grade cryptography. Nobody can charge you money or make a payment on your behalf. So long as you take the required steps to protect your wallet, Bitcoin can give you control over your money and a strong level of protection against many types of fraud.

IconWorks everywhere, anytime

Just like with email, you don't need to ask your family to use the same software or the same service providers. Just let them stick to their own favorites. No problem there; they are all compatible as they use the same open technology. The Bitcoin network never sleeps, even on holidays!

IconFast international payments

Sending bitcoins across borders is as easy as sending them across the street. There are no banks to make you wait three business days, no extra fees for making an international transfer, and no special limitations on the minimum or maximum amount you can send.

IconChoose your own fees

There is no fee to receive bitcoins, and many wallets let you control how large a fee to pay when spending. Most wallets have reasonable default fees, and higher fees can encourage faster confirmation of your transactions. Fees are unrelated to the amount transferred, so it's possible to send 100,000 bitcoins for the same fee it costs to send 1 bitcoin.

IconProtect your identity

With Bitcoin, there is no credit card number that some malicious actor can collect in order to impersonate you. In fact, it is even possible to send a payment without revealing your identity, almost just like with physical money. You should however take note that some effort can be required to protect your privacy.

Bitcoin for Businesses

Bitcoin is a very secure and inexpensive way to handle payments.

IconChoose your own fees

There is no fee to receive bitcoins, and many wallets let you control how large a fee to pay when spending. Most wallets have reasonable default fees, and higher fees can encourage faster confirmation of your transactions. Fees are unrelated to the amount transferred, so it's possible to send 100,000 bitcoins for the same fee it costs to send 1 bitcoin.

IconProtection against fraud

Any business that accepts credit cards or PayPal knows the problem of payments that are later reversed. Chargeback frauds result in limited market reach and increased prices, which in turn penalizes customers. Bitcoin payments are irreversible and secure, meaning that the cost of fraud is no longer pushed onto the shoulders of the merchants.

IconFast international payments

Sending bitcoins across borders is as easy as sending them across the street. There are no banks to make you wait three business days, no extra fees for making an international transfer, and no special limitations on the minimum or maximum amount you can send.

IconNo PCI compliance required

Accepting credit cards online typically requires extensive security checks in order to comply with the PCI standard. Bitcoin still requires you to secure your wallet and your payment requests. However, you do not carry the costs and responsibilities that come with processing sensitive information from your customers like credit card numbers.

IconGet some free visibility

Bitcoin is an emerging market of new customers who are searching for ways to spend their bitcoins. Accepting them is a good way to get new customers and give your business some new visibility. Accepting a new payment method has often shown to be a clever practice for online businesses.

IconMulti-signature

Bitcoin also includes a multi-signature feature which allows bitcoins to be spent only if a subset of a group of people authorize the transaction. This can be used by a board of directors to prevent any member to make expenditures without enough consent from other members, as well as to track which members allowed each payment.

IconAccounting transparency

Many organizations are required to produce accounting documents about their activity. Using Bitcoin allows you to offer the highest level of transparency since you can provide information your members can use to verify your balances and transactions. Non-profit organizations can also allow the public to see how much they receive in donations.

Bitcoin for Developers

Bitcoin can be used to build amazing things or just answer common needs.

IconThe simplest of all payment systems

Unless payment needs to be associated with automatic invoices, accepting money is as simple as sending a bitcoin: link or displaying a QR code. This simple setup is within reach of any user and can fulfill the needs of a good range of clients. When done publicly, it is especially suitable for transparent donations and tips.

IconMany third party APIs

There are many third party payment processing services that provide APIs; you don't need to store bitcoins on your server and handle the security that this implies. Additionally, most of these APIs allow you to process invoices and exchange your bitcoins into your local currency at competitive costs.

IconYou can be your own financial system

If you don't use any third party APIs, you can integrate a Bitcoin node directly into your applications, allowing you to become your own bank and payment processor. With all the responsibilities that this implies, you can build amazing systems that process Bitcoin transactions however you would like.

IconBitcoin addresses to track invoices

Bitcoin creates a unique address for each transaction. So if you were to build a payment system associated with an invoice, you simply need to generate and monitor a Bitcoin address for each payment. You should never use the same address for more than one transaction.

IconMost of the security is on client side

Most security is handled by the protocol, eliminating the need for PCI compliance. Fraud prevention can be simplified down to monitoring a single variable: the confirmation score. Beyond that, keeping your bitcoins secure is mainly a matter of securing your wallet and using HTTPS or other secure protocols to send payment requests to customers.

IconNew payment possibilities

Bitcoin allows you to design new and creative online services that couldn't exist before because of financial limitations. This includes tipping systems, automated payment solutions, distributed crowd-funding services, time locked payment management, public asset tracking, low-trust escrow services, micro-payment channels, and more.

The independent intergovernmental organization FATF or The Financial Action Task Force (on Money Laundering), headquartered in Paris, has published a report as a guide for using digital currencies titled “Guidance for a Risk-Based Approach to Virtual Currencies.” It includes benefits of digital currencies as well as potential risks of money laundering and terror financing.

The report is essentially the conclusion to the recent meeting held at Brisbane that was participated by 34 member nations and two regional organizations – the European Union and the Gulf Co-operation Council — to discuss policies, regulations and compliance for digital currencies.

The 48-page extended report issued by the FATF described bitcoin payment services and products as potential tools for money laundering, and announced that digital currency service providers and companies must identify and notice potential risks of using the currency.

FATF heavily emphasized the importance of its member nations to understand the technicalities and the technology behind digital currencies such as bitcoin, and encouraged its nations to introduce regulations and restrictions for digital currency exchanges that are similar to that of traditional financial establishments, thus requesting all digital exchanges to register and subject to the same regulations of other financial institutions and money transfer businesses.

The FATF’s “guidelines” of bitcoin are predicted to have the same effect as BitLicense had on New York-based bitcoin startups – this time on a global scale.

Despite the report’s persistent connection of bitcoin to money laundering and terrorist financing cases, the report does point out positive usages and applications of the technology behind digital currencies. The FATF respects the attention of venture capital firms and billionaire angel investors who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in digital currency startups.

“Virtual currency has the potential to improve payment efficiency and reduce transaction costs for payments and fund transfers,” the report said. “For example, Bitcoin functions as a global currency that can avoid exchange fees, is currently processed with lower fees/charges than traditional credit and debit cards, and may potentially provide benefit to existing online payment systems, like PayPal.”

FATF also explained that digital currencies are one of the only financial instruments that enables the transfer of microtransactions, which optimizes financial processes of small online businesses and individuals with low-cost goods and services.

Moreover, the advantages of digital currencies for both the unbanked and banked contributed to a significant part of the report, as digital currencies offer extremely low transaction fees, which is very benefitable for those without bank accounts or those using expensive remittance services and bank transfers.

However, FATF finalized the report with a concern that decentralized systems like digital currencies are vulnerable to anonymity risks.

“For example, by design, Bitcoin addresses, which function as accounts, have no names or other customer identification attached, and the system has no central server or service provider,” the report said. “The Bitcoin protocol does not require or provide identification and verification of participants or generate historical records of transactions that are necessarily associated with real world identity. There is no central oversight body, and no AML software currently available to monitor and identify suspicious transaction patterns. Law enforcement cannot target one central location or entity (administrator) for investigative or asset seizure purposes (although authorities can target individual exchangers for client information that the exchanger may collect). It thus offers a level of potential anonymity impossible with traditional credit and debit cards or older online payment systems, such as PayPal.”

 

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