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.
Ethereum-based customized software and networks, independent from the public Ethereum chain, are being tested by enterprise software companies. Interested parties include Microsoft, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, R3, Innovate UK (cross-border payments prototype). Barclays, UBS and Credit Suisse are experimenting with Ethereum.
As with other cryptocurrencies, the validity of each ether is provided by a blockchain, which is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. By design, the blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is an open, distributed ledger that records transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum operates using accounts and balances in a manner called state transitions. This does not rely upon unspent transaction outputs (UTXOs). State denotes the current balances of all accounts and extra data. State is not stored on the blockchain, it is stored in a separate Merkle Patricia tree. A cryptocurrency wallet stores the public and private "keys" or "addresses" which can be used to receive or spend ether. These can be generated through BIP 39 style mnemonics for a BIP 32 "HD Wallet". In Ethereum, this is unnecessary as it does not operate in a UTXO scheme. With the private key, it is possible to write in the blockchain, effectively making an ether transaction.
Ethereum's blockchain uses Merkle trees, for security reasons, to improve scalability, and to optimize transaction hashing. As with any Merkle tree implementation, it allows for storage savings, set membership proofs (called "Merkle proofs"), and light client synchronization. The Ethereum network has at times faced congestion problems, for example, congestion occurred during late 2017 in relation to Cryptokitties.
Ethereum’s core innovation, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is a Turing complete software that runs on the Ethereum network. It enables anyone to run any program, regardless of the programming language given enough time and memory. The Ethereum Virtual Machine makes the process of creating blockchain applications much easier and efficient than ever before. Instead of having to build an entirely original blockchain for each new application, Ethereum enables the development of potentially thousands of different applications all on one platform.
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Darknet markets present challenges in regard to legality. Bitcoins and other forms of cryptocurrency used in dark markets are not clearly or legally classified in almost all parts of the world. In the U.S., bitcoins are labelled as "virtual assets". This type of ambiguous classification puts pressure on law enforcement agencies around the world to adapt to the shifting drug trade of dark markets.
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On 29 Novemvber 2017, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon raised concerns that cryptocurrencies were corrupting the youth of South Korea, remarking “There are cases in which young Koreans including students are jumping in to make quick money and virtual currencies are used in illegal activities like drug dealing or multi-level marketing for frauds”.
Vitalik Buterin picked the name Ethereum after browsing Wikipedia articles about elements and science fiction, when he found the name, noting, "I immediately realized that I liked it better than all of the other alternatives that I had seen; I suppose it was the fact that sounded nice and it had the word 'ether', referring to the hypothetical invisible medium that permeates the universe and allows light to travel."
The legal status of cryptocurrencies varies substantially from country to country and is still undefined or changing in many of them. While some countries have explicitly allowed their use and trade, others have banned or restricted it. According to the Library of Congress, an "absolute ban" on trading or using cryptocurrencies applies in eight countries: Algeria, Bolivia, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. An "implicit ban" applies in another 15 countries, which include Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Lesotho, Lithuania, Macau, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. In the United States and Canada, state and provincial securities regulators, coordinated through the North American Securities Administrators Association, are investigating "bitcoin scams" and ICOs in 40 jurisdictions.
In 1998, Wei Dai published a description of "b-money", characterized as an anonymous, distributed electronic cash system. Shortly thereafter, Nick Szabo described bit gold. Like bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that would follow it, bit gold (not to be confused with the later gold-based exchange, BitGold) was described as an electronic currency system which required users to complete a proof of work function with solutions being cryptographically put together and published. A currency system based on a reusable proof of work was later created by Hal Finney who followed the work of Dai and Szabo.
The receiver of the first bitcoin transaction was cypherpunk Hal Finney, who had created the first reusable proof-of-work system (RPoW) in 2004. Finney downloaded the bitcoin software on its release date, and on 12 January 2009 received ten bitcoins from Nakamoto. Other early cypherpunk supporters were creators of bitcoin predecessors: Wei Dai, creator of b-money, and Nick Szabo, creator of bit gold. In 2010, the first known commercial transaction using bitcoin occurred when programmer Laszlo Hanyecz bought two Papa John's pizzas for ₿10,000.