As Bitcoin's popularity grows, so does talk about its standing as legal tender, but there are lingering issues that need to be sorted out before people start using Bitcoin to buy everyday things, experts said Monday.
Bitcoin has been described both as a store of value and a currency, but it's debatable whether it is either of those things. Its price can swing wildly from day to day, if not the hour, and its reputation has been tarnished by its connection to the sale of illegal goods and other illicit activity such as money laundering.
For those reasons and more, Bitcoin has a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream form of payment. Here are three challenges that generated some discussion at The Future of Money and Technology, a conference in San Francisco.
1. Buyer beware
For starters, Bitcoin transactions are designed to be irreversible. So if you buy something online from a merchant that accepts Bitcoin and the transaction turns out to be a scam, or the payment is sent to the wrong place, or any number of other things happen, the buyer will probably lose that money.
"You're dealing with the honesty of the vendor," said Steve Kirsch, CEO of OneID, a startup that provides encryption services to protect people's data. "It's like giving people cash," he said during a panel discussion at the conference.
Other panelists, all Bitcoin supporters, agreed that in 2014 more services could appear designed to address this problem, such as escrow accounts that could channel money back to the buyer in the case of fraudulent transactions. The Bitcoin system is built using an open-source framework, so those types of developments could actually happen.
New companies could crop up next year to address this problem. Existing players such as Bitcoin payment processors might also add new features to their services in this area, panelists said.
2. Keeping your bitcoins safe
Every bitcoin has a private key associated with it that, if decrypted, allows the bitcoin to be sent to another computer using peer-to-peer software. Because these private keys are often stored on personal computers or within Web-based services, bitcoins are vulnerable to theft.
"All of the existing mechanisms for security, including its [verification] signatures, are problematic," OneID's Kirsch said. Any kind of malware attack can be directed at someone's computer to steal their bitcoins, he said.
There are different ways of storing this private key. Coinbase and others offer digital wallets. Other companies have "offline" or paper-based wallets to put key ownership back into the user's hands, literally: The Bitcoin addresses and private keys are printed on a piece of paper. And the Winklevoss twins of Facebook fame have even offered up a solution with so-called vaults.
But none of those strategies gets around the fact that someone still has to store the key somewhere, experts said Monday during the conference.
"If you store it wrong or leave it lying around, it's just like cash," said Jared Kenna, CEO at TradeHill, a Bitcoin exchange that suspended trading in August due to banking and regulatory issues.
One wallet system, called Armory, allows users to maintain multiple encrypted wallets.
Having too much encryption, however, might also be a bad thing. "I have friends who are encryption experts," Kenna said. Some of those friends applied so much encryption to their keys that they couldn't get them back, he said.
3. Banks aren't fully on board
Bitcoin recently garnered support from federal officials in Washington, but many commercial banks still don't know what to think about it.
For Bitcoin users thinking about a more traditional route to keeping their monies safe, that could be a problem. The currency is designed to be without any financial or legislative authority, but maybe some regulation is needed after all, panelists said.
"The lack of regulations might do more harm than any regulation could," said TradeHill's Kenna. "When there's no clear regulations, banks don't want to touch it," he said.
Bitcoin's newfound support from Washington, and from popular figures such as entrepreneur Richard Branson, could help clear the roadblocks, others said. "There are big forces going on inside the U.S. government," said Brewster Kahle, chairman of the Internet Credit Union, a Bitcoin-friendly bank that dumped some of its Bitcoin clients this past summer, citing regulatory issues.
"I'm hoping things get a bit better," he said.