What Are Bitcoins? If the traders on Mt Gox understand the future, we all may soon see prices online quoted in dollars, euros and bitcoins. Robert Siegel talks about virtual currency "bitcoins" with Annie Lowrey, economy and business reporter for Slate.

What Are Bitcoins?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


If the traders on Mount Gox understand the future, we all may soon see prices online quoted in dollars and euros and BTC - bitcoins. What is bitcoin?


SIEGEL: Bitcoin is the first de-centralized digital currency. Bitcoins are digital coins you can send through the Internet. Compared to other alternatives, bitcoins have a number of advantages.

SIEGEL: If you're lost right now, I'm right there with you. And so, joining us to help us both out and explain the currency whose promoters say it will do to banking what the Internet did to publishing is Annie Lowery, economy and business reporter for Slate. Hi.

ANNIE LOWERY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And first of all, how would one use bitcoins?

LOWERY: You can buy things like - everything from computer Web design to alpaca socks you can purchase. So there's a small community of people who accept bitcoins, and they sell a pretty wide variety of things but mostly sort of tech products right now.

SIEGEL: So, so far, it's kind of like an online digital scrip. There are no real coins. There are no physical coins that we're talking about.

LOWERY: There are no physical coins, no. Basically, in order to possess a bitcoin, you have to have a program on your computer that can help trade the bitcoins. And then it's stored on your computer in what's called a digital wallet.

SIEGEL: And bitcoins have a value. One bitcoin, according to what it says on Mount Gox today, one bitcoin is a little bit over $7.

LOWERY: There's no central banking authority. There really is no banking system that supports this. It's entirely peer to peer.

SIEGEL: The whole point here is this is confidential. This is anonymous. And in theory, if I were somebody trying to launder money or sell a stolen painting, this is the perfect way to do it.

LOWERY: That's not true with bitcoins at all. It would just be me sending them to you directly, computer-to-computer. There's no record afterwards. But the transaction would indeed be secure. You would receive my funds or I would receive yours.

SIEGEL: So this is ostensibly an advantage of dealing in bitcoins. Have you yet seen something for sale online, apart from doing your story about bitcoins, have you stumbled across a site where you've seen a price quoted in bitcoins?

LOWERY: I have not.


LOWERY: But right now, there's so much volatility in the currency that it's a kind of risky asset.

SIEGEL: Annie Lowery, thank you very much for talking with us today.

LOWERY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Annie Lowery is economy and business reporter for Slate.

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