What Is Bitcoin? A Look at the Digital Currency

It's worth more than an ounce of gold right now, it's completely digital and it's the currency of choice for the cyberattackers who crippled computer networks around the world in recent days.

When the attackers' "ransomware" sprang into action, it held victims hostage by encrypting their data and demanding they send payments in bitcoins to regain access to their computers. Bitcoin has a fuzzy history, but it's a type of currency that allows people to buy goods and services and exchange money without involving banks, credit card issuers or other third parties.

Here's a brief look at bitcoin:

How Bitcoins Work

Bitcoin is a digital currency that is not tied to a bank or government and allows users to spend money anonymously. The coins are created by users who "mine" them by lending computing power to verify other users' transactions. They receive bitcoins in exchange. The coins also can be bought and sold on exchanges with U.S. dollars and other currencies.

How Much Is It Worth?

One bitcoin recently traded for $1,734.65, according to Coinbase, a company that helps users exchange bitcoins. That makes it more valuable than an ounce of gold, which trades at less than $1,230.

The value of bitcoins can swing sharply, though. A year ago, one was worth $457.04, which means that it's nearly quadrupled in the last 12 months. But its price doesn't always go up. A bitcoin's value plunged by 23 percent against the dollar in just a week this past January. It fell by the same amount again in 10 days during March.

Why Bitcoins Are Popular

Bitcoins are basically lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they travel from one owner to the next. Transactions can be made anonymously, making the currency popular with libertarians as well as tech enthusiasts, speculators -- and criminals.

Is It Really Anonymous?

Yes, to...

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