How Bitcoin Development Is Evolving – and What’s Behind It Markets CoinDesk
Today I want to talk about code.
I know, this newsletter is for professional investors and not developers – why aren’t we talking about price? Don’t worry, we will further down. But things are evolving with Bitcoin technology that are worth keeping an eye on. While these changes have little to do with the short-term price movements, they are likely to play a significant role in bitcoin’s long-term value proposition.
Two things happened this week to make this top-of-mind: a new development funding source was announced, and progress is being made on a particularly ambitious protocol upgrade.
Before we go into more detail about why these are significant, let’s look at why Bitcoin development matters.
The idea of changes to the Bitcoin protocol will be surprising to many. I mean, doesn’t it just, you know, work? Isn’t one of its strengths that you can’t change the code? These highlight two misunderstandings about the technology and its potential.
Bitcoin’s code has been chugging along for over 10 years now, but it has undergone a few changes. In the early days, there were frequent bugs that Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto and collaborators would fix. And old-timers will remember the “civil war” of 2017 around various scaling options that went to the heart of what the community wanted Bitcoin to be. The result was a change to the Bitcoin code to amplify block capacity, while dissenting opinions branched off to form a “new” Bitcoin blockchain, Bitcoin Cash.
There’s also steady work on functionality enhancements, such as enabling sidechains or smoothing information exchange. And compatibility issues and other minor bugs require constant attention. Like all technologies, if Bitcoin is not maintained and frequently updated, it will wither.
As for how changes happen, anyone can make changes to Bitcoin’s code – it’s open source. Getting the changes implemented, however, requires network consensus, and that is extremely difficult to achieve. Imagine trying to get 20 people with different philosophies, political convictions, economic incentives and life goals to agree on a simple change. Now, multiply that by hundreds if not thousands, make the changes complicated, and you get an inkling of how hard it would be to implement a meaningful alteration. This protects the network from any change other than those the majority believe are beneficial to the entire ecosystem.
An important question is, who pays the developers that work on Bitcoin code?
In the early days of the Bitcoin network, almost all developer funding came from one source, the Bitcoin Foundation. Since then, other funders have entered the scene, including several companies dedicated to Bitcoin work, such as Blockstream, Chaincode Labs and Lightning Labs. Also involved are well-known crypto businesses such as Square Crypto, Coinbase, OKCoin, BitMEX and others, as well as not-for-profit organizations such as MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation. In addition, many developers work on Bitcoin for free, out of passion.
Diversity in the backers of Bitcoin development matters, as it ensures that the network cannot be influenced by one set of priorities. This is why the Brink initiative announced this week is significant: it pushes the diversity of Bitcoin development even further.
Brink introduces an intriguing funding model. It aims to channel donations to developers from a range of sources, including individuals, companies and not-for-profits. Its initial funding comes from donations from investor John Pfeffer and crypto custodian Xapo founder Wences Casares, as well as the Human Rights Foundation and crypto platforms Kraken, Gemini and Square Crypto.
This form of sponsorship could be appealing to individuals and companies that want to support Bitcoin development but don’t want to have to choose specific individuals to fund. The organization has applied for the charitable 501(c)(3) designation in the U.S. so donations can be tax-exempt.
Another big step is Brink’s focus on training new developers, to ensure a steady stream of qualified and diverse contributors well into the future. This bodes well for the network’s long-term resilience and growth.
The second significant news item of the week highlighting the importance of the underlying technology concerns the Taproot upgrade, which will enhance the network’s smart contract functionality as well as introduce some privacy features. Bitcoin mining pools representing over 54% of the network’s current hashrate have signaled support. This is a strong step towards implementation (although there is yet some way to go – no change to the network is without controversy, no matter how popular the actual change is.)
This is significant not just because of the specific changes Taproot will introduce. It also shows that Bitcoin’s use cases are constantly evolving, and that itself is a value proposition. In other words, if you think Bitcoin is a powerful technology now, just wait.
As an example of how Taproot could influence bitcoin’s value, let’s look at what smart contract functionality means. Bitcoin’s program is relatively simple. It can do few things, but it does them well. Ethereum, on the other hand, is complex, but it can support the execution of a wide range of “smart contracts,” or decentralized applications.
While Bitcoin will never rival Ethereum in flexibility (nor does it want to – the more complex the program, the greater the potential attack surface), some modest improvements could improve its utility as a store of value. For instance, imagine that accountability of ownership could be programmed to enable bitcoin to be more effectively used as collateral.
They could also enhance its use as a medium of exchange. A proposed new type of verification signature could make layer 2 transactions easier and cheaper. Taproot also introduces some features that could encourage more use by masking the type of transaction (not its send/receive addresses), which would offer more privacy.
While it is convenient to think of Bitcoin as a perpetual machine that just keeps running, we shouldn’t lose sight of the work involved in making that so. The more developers working on keeping Bitcoin clean and efficient, the more resilient the protocol, and the more likely it is that key improvements can be implemented carefully.
And the more diverse those developers are in terms of backgrounds and incentives, the less likely it becomes that Bitcoin could fall into the same trap as many of today’s technology networks: built by a few, for a few.
It’s also moving to see such a wide range of contributors involved in maintaining a “common good,” even though a direct path to profit is not clear. This is about more than open-source tinkering. It’s about building a new system that all involved believe is an answer to fundamental questions the world is just now waking up to.
This week U.S. president-elect Joe Biden announced his intention to nominate former Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen to head the U.S. Treasury, and may name former Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chair Gary Gensler to become deputy treasury secretary, according to reports.
Treasury appointments are significant for the crypto industry in that the department could shape how some of the main U.S. financial regulators approach crypto assets.
Yellen has said in the past that she is not a fan of bitcoin (my colleague Nik De has summarized her views here) but supports blockchain and cryptocurrency innovation.
Gensler is currently heading up Biden’s financial oversight transition team, which also includes four other cryptocurrency and blockchain experts:
Chris Brummer is a law professor and the faculty director of Georgetown University’s Institute of International Economic Law, author/editor on a seminal book on cryptoassets, and host of the excellent Fintech Beat podcast. He also testified before the U.S. Congress regarding the libra project, and was nominated to serve as a commissioner on the CFTC under President Obama, although the nomination was reversed after the 2016 election.
Mehrsa Baradaran, a University of California at Irvine School of Law professor, specializes in banking law and also testified as an expert witness at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the impact of digital currencies on financial inclusion, and at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on regulatory frameworks.
Lev Menand, one of the original creators of the digital dollar concept, is an academic fellow and law professor at Columbia University. He served as a senior adviser to the deputy secretary of the treasury in 2015-16, has also worked as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s bank supervision group, and helped with a provision detailing the digital dollar in crisis relief bills from the House of Representatives drafted back in March.
Having stewards of U.S. currency regulation that are well-informed about cryptocurrency and blockchain is encouraging, as it makes innovation-killing regulation less likely. Furthermore, official support for the exploration of new solutions to financial barriers, including blockchain-based assets, is likely to encourage both progress on regulatory clarity, and further investment in the crypto industry as a whole.
However, a statement from current U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin offset the resulting market optimism, triggering concern that onerous rules might be pushed through from his office before the end of the year. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s recent book revealed that President Trump had instructed Mnuchin to “go after” bitcoin. And earlier this year, Mnuchin said that FinCEN, the nation’s financial crimes watchdog, was preparing to roll out some “significant new requirements” around cryptocurrencies.
So, some innovation-killing regulation may get rushed through before the transition. Crypto exchange Coinbase’s CEO Brian Armstrong tweeted this week that he’d heard rumors that the Treasury was planning to rush out regulation limiting the use of self-hosted cryptocurrency wallets.
This would be bad news for crypto asset use cases such as decentralized finance and merchant applications, and would put U.S. cryptocurrency users in a “walled garden,” effectively negating its core value of resistance to censorship and seizure. It would also force many users to go “offshore” for such services, weaking both the protective oversight from U.S. regulators and the role of the U.S. as a financial innovation hub.
The S&P 500, Nasdaq and even the FTSE 100 saw further gains this week, which I still find bewildering.
It looks like I’m not the only one: the ECB, IMF and Federal Reserve have all warned this month about shocks to the market should the coronavirus situation continue to worsen. And it looks like it is doing just that, given the latest confirmed case statistics. The latest news on vaccination progress is hopeful, yet expectations are likely to be disappointed by logistical complications and revised efficacy estimates, and the markets seem to be pricing in a strong economic recovery in the short term. A lot can happen to delay that recovery, and not just further surges as Thanksgiving and Christmas throw us together and winter temperatures push us indoors. There’s also the looming possibility of a hard Brexit, which will hit both the U.K. and Europe.
That doesn’t mean that markets won’t keep at the laughing gas, though. If there’s bad news, the belief seems to be that governments will support the markets. If there’s good news, then obviously it’s not discounted. Obviously.
Gold also defied expectations this week, dropping to its lowest point since July as (according to analysts) investors decided now was a good time to move into risk assets and double down on the economic recovery bet. Yes, you read that right.
The bitcoin price started to correct early on Wednesday, and once the U.S. markets closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, the correction turned into a rout, unwinding its gains for the past 10 days (at time of writing – at this pace, things could have radically changed by the time you read this).
In searching for the reasons behind the recent bitcoin run-up (before this week’s slump), many fingers pointed to the institutions. While we have been hearing for years now about the fabled institutional “wall of money” poised to rush in and push BTC prices to stratospheric levels, there are some signs that institutional interest is growing.
The demand growth is not just coming from institutions:
In an interview on CNBC, PayPal CEO Dan Schulman said he believes bitcoin’s usefulness as a currency will ultimately prevail over the buy-and-hold ethos. TAKEAWAY: He has invested his company’s money in these beliefs, promising PayPal users the ability to use cryptocurrencies in approximately 28 million businesses as of early next year. While many of us will splutter and say “but who would want to spend a store of value?!,” we should remember that some regions don’t have access to convenient payment rails. For many, cryptocurrencies may be a more convenient online payment method than fiat. And the applications that could be built on top of public blockchains to enhance this could end up supporting both innovation and cryptocurrencies’ overall value.
U.S.-based crypto exchange Coinbase no longer allows margin trading, in response to recent regulations by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. TAKEAWAY: This is a setback for institutional participation on Coinbase – institutions want leverage, and will move to where they can get it.
In this compelling article, my colleague Ian Allison looks at the emergence of a strong mining industry in North America, encouraged by the access to capital markets, regulatory stability and the relatively low energy and hosting costs. TAKEAWAY: This is significant for two main reasons: 1) the diversification of the mining base strengthens the protocol’s resilience against political interference, and 2) the enhanced access to capital markets is likely to encourage even more investment in network maintenance. The greater the number of miners working on maintaining the network, the greater its security.
New York-based investment management firm VanEck has launched a bitcoin exchange-traded-note on the Deutsche Boerse Xetra. TAKEAWAY: This will be the third ETP to list on Xetra, one of the largest electronic trading platforms in Europe, with a broad international reach (around 50% of its trading participants are from outside Germany). Diversity of choice is good for both investors and market maturity.
Canada-based investment firm Cypherpunk Holdings (listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange with the very cypherpunk-ish symbol of “HODL”) has sold its positions in monero and ether and increased its bitcoin holding by almost 280%. TAKEAWAY: I do not have insight into their reasoning; I share this news with you because the strong bitcoin conviction demonstrated by this change, combined with the hint in their ticker symbol, is interesting.
Bitcoin Mining Difficulty Is Almost At An All Time High
Mining difficulty saw a sharp rise yesterday as Bitcoin saw its “Thanksgiving price slump” over the weekend
The rise in mining difficulty comes as Bitcoin tries to settle just above $18,000 following a week of massive surges and dips. Last week, Bitcoin price broke into the $19,000 level but plunged to below $17,000 afterwards.
Data from crypto analytics firm Glassnode showed mining difficulty on the network was approaching its all-time high after an 8.9% increase yesterday alone. This sharp swell put the current difficulty level within 5% of its all-time high value that was seen last month. The network’s hash rate is now north of 130 EH/s.
“#Bitcoin mining difficulty increased by 8.9% today. It is now only 4.4% below its ATH,” the on-chain analytics firm posted on Twitter.
Judging from history, an increase in mining difficulty has signified the onset of the bullish run. This was the case in 2013 and also in 2016. At the moment, it remains uncertain if the recent upswing in BTC price to within range of its all-time high is a long-term bull cycle.
Although Bitcoin had a great upward momentum last week, its price plummeted by slightly over 10%; the result of several Bitcoin whales transferring their holdings onto exchanges. Bitcoin price, as of writing, is $18,650 — up 4.96 % in the last 24 hours.
The increased mining difficulty on the network can have a huge impact on the cryptocurrency. It could potentially result in higher fees for users as well as increased block generation time. It could also lead to an increase in the number of unmined transactions in the crypto’s mempool.
Ethereum also posted an increase in mining difficulty recently. Glassnode revealed that the mining difficulty for the blockchain surpassed a two-year high at the end of last week. This came after ETH price dropped from over $600 at the start of the week to $513 by mid-week.
“#Ethereum $ETH Mining Difficulty just reached an ATH of 3,719,917,244,648,520. Previous ATH of 3,696,664,670,930,580 was observed on 04 August 2018,” Glassnode alerts wrote.
Ethereum is currently changing hands at $586.04, having climbed up 8.30% in the last 24 hours.
Blockchain Bites: Bitcoin All-Time High Puts It on Pace for Highest Monthly Close
Blockchain Bites is back – we hope you enjoyed the holiday pause. Now for the news: Another major hedge fund may allocate to bitcoin. Kaspersky sees cybercrime on the rise for 2021. And anonymous developers have forked a seemingly dead project to launch DeFi’s latest stablecoin.
Basic Cash basics
A team of anonymous developers is resurrecting a version of Basecoin, a project that received $133 million in funding though never launched. The quasi-fork, called Basis Cash, is a dollar-pegged stablecoin project designed for DeFi and commercial applications, a Basis developer said. Beginning with just 50,000 BAC (the token’s ticker) at first, Basis is in a minority of stablecoins that are not backed by anything of value. Instead, price stability will be maintained by the algorithmic printing of Basis Bonds and currency debasing. (The original Basecoin was foiled by U.S. securities regulators, and the team returned the raised funds in 2018.)
Guggenheim Funds Trust filed an amendment with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to allow its flagship $5 billion Macro Opportunities Fund gain exposure to bitcoin by investing up to 10% of the fund’s net asset value in the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC). Guggenheim is a hedge fund giant with more than $233 billion in total assets. If it follows through on its investment, Guggenheim will join hedge fund managers Stanley Druckenmiller’s and Paul Tudor Jones’s recent excursion into crypto, who both noted bitcoin’s strength as an inflation hedge.
Ethereum Classic hard forked to its Thanos upgrade, meant to increase miner participation and increase security. The upgrade allows less powerful mining rigs to join the network, while also doubling the duration of ETC’s mining period, thereby “increasing network security and promoting a more distributed and healthy mining ecosystem,” Terry Culver, CEO at ETCLab, said. More than 90% of existing miners have migrated over to the Thanos fork, according to Culver. Further, as new miners have come online, the network’s hashrate has also seen a notable rise. Over the past year Ethereum Classic has suffered a number of 51% attacks.
Cybersecurity specialist Kaspersky foresees a rise in bitcoin scams in 2021, according to a new report on coming financial threats. Weakening fiat systems and rising poverty caused by the coronavirus pandemic will drive many to cybercrime. Specifically, researchers say, bitcoin fraud and theft is likely to increase, as it is “the most widespread cryptocurrency.” The report extrapolates on available data from this year. Further, targeted ransomware attacks are also expected to rise, having seen “successful operations and extensive media coverage this year,” though Kaspersky thinks ransomers will begin demanding more payouts in privacy-preserving cryptos like monero.
Yesterday I reported that the central banks of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) published a report based on a year-long joint digital currency pilot. In the report the regional powerhouses found that distributed ledgers, including classic blockchains, could improve cross-border and domestic settlements, without sacrificing privacy.
But the “Aber” project, named for the Arabic word for “crossing boundaries,” was significant for more than just a successful central bank digital currency (CBDC) dry run. According to the researchers, it was likely the first blockchain-based CBDC experiment that tested the feasibility of a dual-issued currency.
In this sense, even though a Saudi/UAE bilateral currency is nowhere near ready for deployment, if ever, Aber did add to the existing body of knowledge. The program – which also involved the cooperation of six commercial banks that risked their own deposits in the trial – specifically referenced previous CBDC pilots in Singapore, Japan, South Africa and Canada.
It’s worth going over what those earlier experiments were seeking:
“While other central banks have also explored cross-border payments, the major difference was in Aber’s dually issued single digital currency approach and use of real money,” Aber’s researchers write.
Accordingly, while most blockchain-based CBDC pilots found varying levels of success in distributed systems to structure a nation’s financial architecture, the research isn’t complete.
Aber, for one, saw early issues in coordinating nodes across jurisdictions as well as lingering questions around transaction privacy, particularly in cross-border transfers. Then there are the issues that any blockchain system will run into including scalability, transaction finality and throughput limit. Those are mostly technical concerns.
Economically speaking, as a joint currency backed equally by the Saudi Riyal and the UAE Dirham initiative, fluctuating foreign currency exchange rates became an issue. As did the possibility of different cities and jurisdictions applying different taxes or charging different interest rates.
While many nations are surging ahead with CBDC adoption – with China and the Bahamas leading the pack – there’s still reason to take a slow-going approach. After all, Aber, modest as it was, was among the first to put real money at stake.
Bitcoin Sextortion: Scams Using Email, Videos, Passwords to Extort BTC
The number of people targeted by bitcoin sextortion scams in 2020 has increased rapidly. According to an analysis by British security company Sophos, millions of people recently received sextortion scam emails in the week it analyzed.
“In fact, the number was probably more like tens or even hundreds of millions,” Sophos senior threat analyst Paul Ducklin wrote, adding that some people received between two and five different varieties of this scam. He explained, “The scams exploited global botnets on compromised PCs to dispatch millions of spam emails to recipients around the world,” elaborating:
Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina, the Republic of Korea, India, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Colombia, and Peru are the top 10 countries where these compromised computers were used to dispatch the spam messages.
The cybersecurity firm found that 81% of the millions of sextortion scam messages it analyzed were in English, 10% in Italian, 4% in German, 3.5% in French, and 1.2% in Chinese.
Sextortion is a widely used form of online blackmail where a cyber scammer threatens to reveal intimate images or videos of someone online — often to their friends, family, work colleagues, or social media lists — unless they pay a ransom quickly. The scammer often asks for payment in cryptocurrency, particularly bitcoin.
A sextortion mail scammer may claim to have compromised your computer, or other electronic devices, threatening that your webcams have been recording you watching sexual content. “I know pretty much everything about you. Your entire Facebook contact list, phone contacts along with all the online activity on your computer,” the scammer may write. Another sextortion mail may say: “the last time you went to see porn material on webpages, my spyware was activated inside your personal computer which ended up logging a lovely video footage of your masturbation simply by activating your cam.”
Sophos also provided some examples, such as “We made a video of you on a porn site with the screenshots and the webcam footage side-by-side” and “We also used this malware to film you via your webcam and to take screenshots of your browser.” Sophoslabs security researcher Tamás Kocsír pointed out:
If you are worried about becoming the target of a sextortion scam, disable or cover the camera on your computer.
To make the threat more real, some sextortion mail may include your full or partial passwords as proof that there is actually malware on your computers. One of Sophos’ sextortion email examples reads:
Attention. We implanted malware on your computer, which means we have been keeping tabs on you, including grabbing your passwords and getting access to your accounts.
However, Ducklin advised that these passwords are often old ones you used before in the past. “In truth, the passwords sent out in these scams have typically been dredged up from old data breaches,” he opined. “Although the password you see may have been your password once, the crooks didn’t get it from your computer recently.”
Other than email, sextortion can occur on a number of social network platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Telegram, Skype, Kakaotalk, Line, and Wechat. In particular, Whatsapp sextortion schemes have been gaining popularity recently. On these platforms, someone can befriend you and ask for selfies or sexy videos of you which can then be used to blackmail you with.
A sextortion email often ends with a call for action to hurry the recipient to make immediate payment to prevent their explicit photos or videos from being shown to their friends, family, or other contacts. Ducklin detailed that the email could emphasize, “We know who they are, because we have your passwords,” adding:
The extortion demand is typically somewhere from $700 to $4000, payable to a bitcoin address provided in the email.
Bitcoin sextortion scams have proven to be lucrative for scammers, according to research by Sophos, since it takes little effort and investment to send scam emails that can result in a lot of money for them. The company recently traced the origins of millions of sextortion scam emails launched between September 2019 and February 2020 and analyzed what happened to the money deposited by victims into attackers’ bitcoin wallets.
Kocsír shared: “While most recipients either didn’t open the email or didn’t pay, enough of them did to net the attackers around 50.9 bitcoin, equivalent to nearly $500,000.”
The researcher additionally explained that some sextortion scammers use rather sophisticated techniques, such as “innovative obfuscation techniques designed to bypass anti-spam filters.” He further described that some “Examples of this include breaking up the words with invisible random strings, inserting blocks of white garbage text, or adding words in the Cyrillic alphabet to confuse machine scanning.”
Receiving a bitcoin sextortion email can be alarming and intimidating. Many people are genuinely worried that the scammers may actually have their passwords or explicit photos and videos. However, anyone receiving a sextortion scam mail should know that scammers typically have no compromising information about them.
“It’s all a bluff,” Ducklin believes, asserting that the people behind sextortion email scams “don’t have malware on your computer, don’t have a video of you doing anything, don’t have screenshots of your browsing habits, and haven’t just stolen a list of your friends and family to send their non-existent video to.”
The U.K. National Crime Agency has advised how to deal with bitcoin sextortion scams. The organization recommends you report the scam to the police, do not pay any money, stop communicating with the person immediately, report the scam to your internet service provider, and take screenshots with as much information as possible for evidence. Californian District Attorney Jeff Reisig also advised what to do if you get a sextortion mail. He emphasized:
You should remember that sextortion is illegal. If you’re targeted in this kind of scam, you get in touch with your local police. It’s also recommended that you save all of the original e-mails from the hacker.
What do you think about bitcoin sextortion scams in 2020? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Bitcoin Breaks New All-Time Highs Targeting $23,000
Bitcoin rose to a new all-time high for the first time since mid-December 2017. While speculation mounts about further gains on the horizon, multiple on-chain metrics point to a steep decline.
Bitcoin managed to recover all the losses incurred after the 17% retracement of Nov. 25.
Even though more than 200,000 traders were liquidated during the most recent correction in the cryptocurrency market, investors did not wait long to re-enter their long positions.
The spike in buying pressure saw BTC rise by more than 22%. It went from trading at a low of $16,200 on Nov. 26 to hit a new all-time high of $19,860.
Paolo Ardoino, CTO at Bitfinex, maintains that the recent price action can be attributed to the increasing demand among institutional investors.
“Bitcoin’s ascent today to a new all-time high of $19,844 will captivate. Still, of far greater consequence are the fundamentals giving fuel to this rally, notably the increasing presence of institutional investors. Bitcoin is still nascent, and even relatively small allocations into the asset class from investment funds can have a seismic impact.”
If the buying pressure continues mounting, Bitcoin might be able to rise towards $23,000.
A 4-hour candlestick close above $19,500 will add credence to the optimistic outlook as it increases the chances for this potential upswing.
Retail investors do not seem willing to enter the market at the current price levels. Such behavior can be seen in the declining number of new daily addresses joining the Bitcoin network.
This sort of divergence between prices and network growth can be considered a bearish signal.
Usually, when the network shrinks for a prolonged period, prices tend to tumble.
Failing to close above the $19,500 resistance level could trigger a sell-off among investors. If this were to happen, Bitcoin may pull back to the 78.6% or 50% Fibonacci retracement level before the uptrend resumes.
These support levels sit at $18,800 and $17,800, respectively.
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