Requiring a proof of work to accept a new block to the blockchain was Satoshi Nakamoto's key innovation. The mining process involves identifying a block that, when hashed twice with SHA-256, yields a number smaller than the given difficulty target. While the average work required increases in inverse proportion to the difficulty target, a hash can always be verified by executing a single round of double SHA-256.
But not everyone is going along for the ride. Back in East Wenatchee, Miehe is giving me an impromptu tour of the epicenter of the basin’s boom. We drive out to the industrial park by the regional airport, where the Douglas County Port Authority has created a kind of mining zone. We roll past Carlson’s construction site, which is swarming with equipment and men. Not far away, we can see a cluster of maybe two dozen cargo containers that Salcido has converted into mines, with transformers and cooling systems. Across the highway, near the new, already-tapped out substation, Salcido has another crew working a much larger mine. “A year ago, none of this was here,” Miehe says. “This road wasn’t here.”
The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
A CMU researcher estimated that in 2012, 4.5% to 9% of all transactions on all exchanges in the world were for drug trades on a single dark web drugs market, Silk Road. Child pornography, murder-for-hire services, and weapons are also allegedly available on black market sites that sell in bitcoin. Due to the anonymous nature and the lack of central control on these markets, it is hard to know whether the services are real or just trying to take the bitcoins.
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Keys come in pairs. The public key is used to encrypt the message whereas the private key decrypts the message. The only person with the private key is you. Everyone else is free to have your public key. As a result, everyone can send you encrypted messages without having to agree on a key beforehand. They simply use your public key and you untangle the gibberish by using your private key.
Mining a block is difficult because the SHA-256 hash of a block's header must be lower than or equal to the target in order for the block to be accepted by the network. This problem can be simplified for explanation purposes: The hash of a block must start with a certain number of zeros. The probability of calculating a hash that starts with many zeros is very low, therefore many attempts must be made. In order to generate a new hash each round, a nonce is incremented. See Proof of work for more information.
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
So that’s Bitcoin mining in a nutshell. It’s called mining because of the fact that this process helps “mine” new Bitcoins from the system. But if you think about it, the mining part is just a by-product of the transaction confirmation process. So the name is a bit misleading, since the main goal of mining is to maintain the ledger in a decentralized manner.
In the process of mining, each Bitcoin miner is competing with all the other miners on the network to be the first one to correctly assemble the outstanding transactions into a block by solving those specialized math puzzles. In exchange for validating the transactions and solving these problems. Miners also hold the strength and security of the Bitcoin network. This is very important for security because in order to attack the network, an attacker would need to have over half of the total computational power of the network. This attack is referred to as the 51% attack. The more decentralized the miners mining Bitcoin, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to perform this attack.
But here, Carlson and his fellow would-be crypto tycoons confronted the bizarre, engineered obstinacy of bitcoin, which is designed to make life harder for miners as time goes by. For one, the currency’s mysterious creator (or creators), known as “Satoshi Nakamoto,” programmed the network to periodically—every 210,000 blocks, or once every four years or so—halve the number of bitcoins rewarded for each mined block. The first drop, from 50 coins to 25, came on November 28, 2012, which the faithful call “Halving Day.” (It has since halved again, to 12.5, and is expected to drop to 6.25 in June 2020.)
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.
Market Risk: Like with any investment, Bitcoin values can fluctuate. Indeed, the value of the currency has seen wild swings in price over its short existence. Subject to high volume buying and selling on exchanges, it has a high sensitivity to “news." According to the CFPB, the price of bitcoins fell by 61% in a single day in 2013, while the one-day price drop in 2014 has been as big as 80%.
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.
Another advancement in mining technology was the creation of the mining pool, which is a way for individual miners to work together to solve blocks even faster. As a result of mining in a pool with others, the group solves many more blocks than each miner would on his own. Bitcoin mining pools exist because the computational power required to mine Bitcoins on a regular basis is so vast that it is beyond the financial and technical means of most people. Rather than investing a huge amount of money in mining equipment that will (hopefully) give you a return over a period of decades, a mining pool allows the individual to accumulate smaller amounts of Bitcoin more frequently.
The network requires minimal structure to share transactions. An ad hoc decentralized network of volunteers is sufficient. Messages are broadcast on a best effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will. Upon reconnection, a node downloads and verifies new blocks from other nodes to complete its local copy of the blockchain.
Bitcoin Core is the “official” Bitcoin client and wallet, though isn’t used by many due to slow speeds and a lack of features. Bitcoin Core, however, is a full node, meaning it helps verify and transmit other Bitcoin transactions across the network and stores a copy of the entire blockchain. This offers better privacy since Core doesn’t have to rely on data from external servers or other peers on the network. Bitcoin Core routed through Tor is considered one of the best ways to use Bitcoin privately.
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.