Every transaction is a file that consists of the sender’s and recipient’s public keys (wallet addresses) and the amount of coins transferred. The transaction also needs to be signed off by the sender with their private key. All of this is just basic cryptography. Eventually, the transaction is broadcasted in the network, but it needs to be confirmed first.
The first cryptocurrency to capture the public imagination was Bitcoin, which was launched in 2009 by an individual or group known under the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. As of February 2019, there were over 17.53 million bitcoins in circulation with a total market value of around $63 billion (although the market price of bitcoin can fluctuate quite a bit). Bitcoin's success has spawned a number of competing cryptocurrencies, known as "altcoins" such as Litecoin, Namecoin and Peercoin, as well as Ethereum, EOS, and Cardano. Today, there are literally thousands of cryptocurrencies in existence, with an aggregate market value of over $120 billion (Bitcoin currently represents more than 50% of the total value).

The Bank for International Settlements summarized several criticisms of bitcoin in Chapter V of their 2018 annual report. The criticisms include the lack of stability in bitcoin's price, the high energy consumption, high and variable transactions costs, the poor security and fraud at cryptocurrency exchanges, vulnerability to debasement (from forking), and the influence of miners.[198][199][200]
But while cryptocurrencies are more used for payment, its use as a means of speculation and a store of value dwarfs the payment aspects. Cryptocurrencies gave birth to an incredibly dynamic, fast-growing market for investors and speculators. Exchanges like Okcoin, Poloniex or shapeshift enables the trade of hundreds of cryptocurrencies. Their daily trade volume exceeds that of major European stock exchanges.

The semi-anonymous nature of cryptocurrency transactions makes them well-suited for a host of nefarious activities, such as money laundering and tax evasion. However, cryptocurrency advocates often value the anonymity highly. Some cryptocurrencies are more private than others. Bitcoin, for instance, is a relatively poor choice for conducting illegal business online, and forensic analysis of bitcoin transactions has led authorities to arrest and prosecute criminals. More privacy-oriented coins do exist, such as Dash, ZCash, or Monero, which are far more difficult to trace.
Markets are dirty. But this doesn‘t change the fact that cryptocurrencies are here to stay – and here to change the world. This is already happening. People all over the world buy Bitcoin to protect themselves against the devaluation of their national currency. Mostly in Asia, a vivid market for Bitcoin remittance has emerged, and the Bitcoin using darknets of cybercrime are flourishing. More and more companies discover the power of Smart Contracts or token on Ethereum, the first real-world application of blockchain technologies emerge.
In May 2018, Bitcoin Gold (and two other cryptocurrencies) were hit by a successful 51% hashing attack by an unknown actor, in which exchanges lost estimated $18m.[citation needed] In June 2018, Korean exchange Coinrail was hacked, losing US$37 million worth of altcoin. Fear surrounding the hack was blamed for a $42 billion cryptocurrency market selloff.[72] On 9 July 2018 the exchange Bancor had $23.5 million in cryptocurrency stolen.[73]
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.[75]
The unit of account of the bitcoin system is a bitcoin. Ticker symbols used to represent bitcoin are BTC[b] and XBT.[c][76]:2 Its Unicode character is ₿.[1] Small amounts of bitcoin used as alternative units are millibitcoin (mBTC), and satoshi (sat). Named in homage to bitcoin's creator, a satoshi is the smallest amount within bitcoin representing 0.00000001 bitcoins, one hundred millionth of a bitcoin.[2] A millibitcoin equals 0.001 bitcoins; one thousandth of a bitcoin or 100,000 satoshis.[77]