Author: Alex Gladstein

Can Governments Stop Bitcoin?

Since its creation more than 12 years ago, Bitcoin is undefeated. Its price has leaped from $5 to $50 to $500 to $5,000 to now past $50,000. The number of global users has eclipsed 100 million. The system’s network security, number of developers, and new applications are at all-time highs. Dozens of companies including Tesla and Square have started to add Bitcoin to their corporate treasuries. This worldwide success doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to stop Bitcoin. The digital money project has in fact survived a variety of attacks which in some cases threatened its existence. There are two main vectors: network attacks on the software and hardware infrastructure, and legal attacks on Bitcoin users. Before we explore them and consider why they failed, let’s start at the beginning. In January 2009, a mysterious coder going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto launched Bitcoin, an open-source financial network with big ambitions: to replace central banking with a decentralized, peer-to-peer system with no rulers. It would use a programmable, highly-fungible token that could be spent …

COVID-19 and the Normalization of Mass Surveillance

In the past few months, governments ranging from Australia to the United Kingdom and corporations as influential as Google and Apple have pushed the idea that cellphone tracking can be used to effectively fight COVID-19. There was even an essay here at Quillette, arguing that a mandatory phone tracking app would save lives while also saving jobs as a policy alternative to economic lockdown. Unfortunately, the idea that phone apps should be popularized or even mandated to fight outbreaks is techno-utopian, based on optimism rather than evidence. The real impact of such an approach on society wouldn’t be better immunity, but rather the acceptance and creeping growth of an even more powerful and omniscient global surveillance state. Governments, scientists, and product designers are racing to find technological fixes for the spread of COVID-19. Some of these solutions—such as more efficient mass-production of masks, more accurate and prevalent testing, and efforts to create a vaccine—are valid and vital, and defend the health of citizens and strength of society without violating civil liberties. Masks can arguably even help …

How Bitcoin Can Protect Free Speech in the Digital Age

Think about what happens when you buy a newspaper at a local cafe with cash. The shopkeeper takes your paper money, and gives you the item. They don’t know your name, address, phone number, email, or what you bought yesterday. They are not collecting any data about you. Until now, this level of financial privacy was perfectly normal. Today, cash is disappearing. In the UK, just 42 percent of transactions are still performed using cash. In America, it’s down to 32 percent. In Sweden, 20 percent. And in South Korea, only 14 percent. In some urban areas—for example, Stockholm or Beijing—electronic and touchless payments are virtually everywhere. In an increasingly cashless world, citizens are losing their privacy and, by extension, their civil liberties. When you buy a subscription to a political magazine like this one, you almost certainly do so with a credit card or through a platform like PayPal. These payment processors collect data about you that can be sold, leaked, hacked, or handed over to a curious government. When you make an electronic …