The proof-of-work system, alongside the chaining of blocks, makes modifications of the blockchain extremely hard, as an attacker must modify all subsequent blocks in order for the modifications of one block to be accepted. As new blocks are mined all the time, the difficulty of modifying a block increases as time passes and the number of subsequent blocks (also called confirmations of the given block) increases.
The process of mining bitcoins works like a lottery. Bitcoin miners are competing to produce hashes—alphanumeric strings of a fixed length that are calculated from data of an arbitrary length. They’re producing the hashes from a combination of three pieces of data: new blocks of Bitcoin transactions; the last block on the blockchain; and a random number. These are collectively referred to as the “block header” for the current block. Each time miners perform the hash function on the block header with a new random number, they get a new result. To win the lottery, a miner must find a hash that begins with a certain number of zeroes. Just how many zeroes are required is a shifting parameter determined by how much computing power is attached to the Bitcoin network. Every two weeks, on average, the mining software automatically readjusts the number of leading zeros needed—the difficulty level—by looking at how fast new blocks of Bitcoin transactions were added. The algorithm is aiming for a latency of 10 minutes between blocks. When miners boost the computing power on the network, they temporarily increase the rate of block creation. The network senses the change and then ratchets up the difficulty level. When a miner’s computer finds a winning hash, it broadcasts the block header to its next peers in the Bitcoin network, which check it and then propagate it further.
What separated these survivors from the quitters and the double-downers, Carlson concluded, was simply the price of electricity. Survivors either lived in or had moved to places like China or Iceland or Venezuela, where electricity was cheap enough for bitcoin to be profitable. Carlson knew that if he could find a place where the power wasn’t just cheap, but really cheap, he’d be able to mine bitcoin both profitably and on an industrial scale.
What bitcoin miners actually do could be better described as competitive bookkeeping. Miners build and maintain a gigantic public ledger containing a record of every bitcoin transaction in history. Every time somebody wants to send bitcoins to somebody else, the transfer has to be validated by miners: They check the ledger to make sure the sender isn’t transferring money she doesn’t have. If the transfer checks out, miners add it to the ledger. Finally, to protect that ledger from getting hacked, miners seal it behind layers and layers of computational work—too much for a would-be fraudster to possibly complete.
Hardware wallets are by far the most secure kind of Bitcoin wallet, as they store Bitcoins on a physical piece of equipment, generally plugged into a computer via a USB port. They are all but immune to virus attacks and very few instances of Bitcoin theft have been reported. These devices are the only Bitcoin wallets which aren't free, and they often cost $100 to $200.
Bitcoin mining is a competitive endeavor. An "arms race" has been observed through the various hashing technologies that have been used to mine bitcoins: basic CPUs, high-end GPUs common in many gaming computers, FPGAs and ASICs all have been used, each reducing the profitability of the less-specialized technology. Bitcoin-specific ASICs are now the primary method of mining bitcoin and have surpassed GPU speed by as much as 300 fold. As bitcoins have become more difficult to mine, computer hardware manufacturing companies have seen an increase in sales of high-end ASIC products.
With bitcoin, on the other hand, the supply is tightly controlled by the underlying algorithm. A small number of new bitcoins trickle out every hour, and will continue to do so at a diminishing rate until a maximum of 21 million has been reached. This makes bitcoin more attractive as an asset – in theory, if demand grows and the supply remains the same, the value will increase.
In the zero-sum game that cryptocurrency has become, one man’s free money is another man’s headache. In the Mid-Columbia Basin, the latter category includes John Stoll, who oversees Chelan County Public Utility District’s maintenance crews. Stoll regards people like Benny as “rogue operators,” the utility’s term for small players who mine without getting proper permits and equipment upgrades, and whose numbers have soared in the past 12 months. Though only a fraction of the size of their commercial peers, these operators can still overwhelm residential electric grids. In extreme cases, insulation can melt off wires. Transformers will overheat. In one instance last year, the utility says, a miner overloaded a transformer and caused a brush fire.