It's All About the Bitcoins
Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security shut down Bitcoin trading platform Mt. Gox’s ability to accept or send transfers using Dwolla, a mobile payment service. A representative from Dwolla told Betabeat that the DHS had sent them a “seizure warrant” for the account, but declined to provide further detail. Now, in the warrant, obtained by Ars Technica, the reason for the seizure has been revealed: DHS believes Mt. Gox is operating an “unlicensed money transmitting business.”
It looks like the hacker who breached Mt. Gox made off with about $34,000 worth of Bitcoin and then artificially crashed the market by dropping a sell order for 500,000 BTC, according to the post-mortem about the hack published by Mt. Gox. But while the hacker did withdraw 2,000 in actual BTC, which Mt. Gox is replacing at their own expense, the enormous sell order was vapor:
We would like to note that the Bitcoins sold were not taken from other users’ accounts—they were simply numbers with no wallet backing. For a brief period, the number of Bitcoins in the Mt. Gox exchange vastly outnumbered the Bitcoins in our wallet. Normally, this should be impossible.
The sales could not have been completed because there were no actual Bitcoins to transfer. The hacker had simply assigned himself a huge number of BTC, which was enough to place orders on Mt. Gox and confuse the market.
Bitcoin, the digital cryptocurrency, is a plausible universal web-based money with two major failure points. One is government regulation, due to Bitcoin’s usefulness in criminal activity and potentially disruptive threat to the dollar and the global financial system (oh, is that all?); the other is its susceptibility to being stolen, counterfeited, or vaporized by virtue of being made of ones and zeros. After a few years of merry trading, Bitcoin is having a moment–speculators are going crazy over it and the mainstream is learning about it. But it’s also facing its first real viability tests.