The Mid-Columbia Basin isn’t the only location where the virtual realm of cryptocurrency is colliding with the real world of megawatts and real estate. In places like China, Venezuela and Iceland, cheap land and even cheaper electricity have resulted in bustling mining hubs. But the basin, by dint of its early start, has emerged as one of the biggest boomtowns. By the end of 2018, according to some estimates, miners here could account for anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of all bitcoin mining in the world, and impressive shares of other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Litecoin. And as with any boomtown, that success has created tensions. There have been disputes between miners and locals, bankruptcies and bribery attempts, lawsuits, even a kind of intensifying guerrilla warfare between local utility crews and a shadowy army of bootleg miners who set up their servers in basements and garages and max out the local electrical grids.
Each block that is added to the blockchain, starting with the block containing a given transaction, is called a confirmation of that transaction. Ideally, merchants and services that receive payment in bitcoin should wait for at least one confirmation to be distributed over the network, before assuming that the payment was done. The more confirmations that the merchant waits for, the more difficult it is for an attacker to successfully reverse the transaction in a blockchain—unless the attacker controls more than half the total network power, in which case it is called a 51% attack.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Kentucky found "robust evidence that computer programming enthusiasts and illegal activity drive interest in bitcoin, and find limited or no support for political and investment motives". Australian researchers have estimated that 25% of all bitcoin users and 44% of all bitcoin transactions are associated with illegal activity as of April 2017. There were an estimated 24 million bitcoin users primarily using bitcoin for illegal activity. They held $8 billion worth of bitcoin, and made 36 million transactions valued at $72 billion. A group of researches analyzed bitcoin transactions in 2016 and came to a conclusion that "some recent concerns regarding the use of bitcoin for illegal transactions at the present time might be overstated".
Here’s how it works: Say Alice wants to transfer one bitcoin to Bob. First Bob sets up a digital address for Alice to send the money to, along with a key allowing him to access the money once it’s there. It works sort-of like an email account and password, except that Bob sets up a new address and key for every incoming transaction (he doesn’t have to do this, but it’s highly recommended).
In parts of the basin, utility crews now actively hunt unpermitted miners, in a manner not unlike the way police look for indoor cannabis farms. The biggest giveaway, Stoll says, is a sustained jump in power use. But crews have learned to look, and listen, for other telltales, such as “fans that are exhausting out of the garage or a bedroom.” In any given week, the utility flushes out two to five suspected miners, Stoll says. Some come clean. They pay for permits and the often-substantial wiring upgrades, or they quit. But others quietly move their servers to another residential location and plug back in. “It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game,” Stoll admits.
In March 2013 the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with different rules. The two blockchains operated simultaneously for six hours, each with its own version of the transaction history. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software. The Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the price dropped by 23% to $37 before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours. The US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (MSBs), that are subject to registration or other legal obligations. In April, exchanges BitInstant and Mt. Gox experienced processing delays due to insufficient capacity resulting in the bitcoin price dropping from $266 to $76 before returning to $160 within six hours. The bitcoin price rose to $259 on 10 April, but then crashed by 83% to $45 over the next three days. On 15 May 2013, US authorities seized accounts associated with Mt. Gox after discovering it had not registered as a money transmitter with FinCEN in the US. On 23 June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listed 11.02 bitcoins as a seized asset in a United States Department of Justice seizure notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881. This marked the first time a government agency had seized bitcoin. The FBI seized about 26,000 bitcoins in October 2013 from the dark web website Silk Road during the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht. Bitcoin's price rose to $755 on 19 November and crashed by 50% to $378 the same day. On 30 November 2013 the price reached $1,163 before starting a long-term crash, declining by 87% to $152 in January 2015. On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China prohibited Chinese financial institutions from using bitcoins. After the announcement, the value of bitcoins dropped, and Baidu no longer accepted bitcoins for certain services. Buying real-world goods with any virtual currency had been illegal in China since at least 2009.