In this two part series, we take a look at technical and legal issues related to virtual currencies, especially Bitcoins. This is the first part on technical aspects of Bitcoins
Before we go into a discussion of Bitcoins, it is important to understand what digital cash is.
What is digital cash?
Digital cash aims to duplicate the functionality of paper cash, by providing it with properties of anonymity and transferability of payment. Digital cash is intended to be implemented data which can be copied, stored, or given as payment (for example, attached to an email message, or via a USB stick, Bluetooth, etc). Just like paper currency and coins, digital cash is intended to represent value because it is backed by a trusted third party (namely, the government and the banking industry). Most money is already paid in electronic form; for example, by credit or debit card, and by direct transfer between accounts, or by on-line services such as PayPal.
Ideal properties of digital cash
Secure: Person ‘A’ should be able to pass digital cash to person ‘B’ without either of them, or others, being able to alter or reproduce the electronic token.
Anonymous: Person ‘A’ should be able to pay Person ‘B’ without both revealing their identities.
Portable: The security and use of the digital cash is not dependent on any physical location. The cash should be able to be stored on disk or USB memory stick, sent by email or SMS. Digital cash should not be restricted to a single, proprietary computer network.
Off-line capable: The protocol between the two exchanging parties is executed off-line, meaning that neither is required to be host-connected in order to proceed. Person ‘A’ can freely pass value to person ‘B’ at any time of day without requiring third-party authentication.
These are the ideal properties, and no known system satisfies them all. It is important to note here that Paypal is not "digital cash", because it doesn't attempt to provide properties similar to cash (anonymity, off-line usage). Instead, it aims to replace credit cards, and is much more secure. In contrast with credit cards, Paypal payees do not have to have merchant status.
What is Bitcoin and how the technology works?
In the language of computer programmers, Bitcoin is a digital currency that is created and exchanged independently of any government or bank. Bitcoin is generated through a computer program and can be converted into cash after being deposited into virtual Bitcoin-wallets, which is created when one downloads a Bitcoin open-source program. When one runs the open source client, it connects to the Internet and links the user to a decentralized peer-to-peer network of all bitcoin users. The user has to create a Bitcoin wallet in order to start doing business with bitcoins, much like an online account or e-cart. The program generates a pair of keys, a public and a private key, which is used while sending and receiving bitcoins over the network. The private key is always hidden. The public key is like an address to identify the key holder. Each Bitcoin address has its own Bitcoin balance. Every time a transaction is made, the public address of each user is made public to the entire network. The process of generating Bitcoins is through a complex algorithm which mines a unique number representing a bitcoin. The algorithm can be assumed to be a worker in a gold mine who is searching for a slab of gold. In this case, the algorithm is searching for an available bitcoin. The upper limit to the number of bitcoins is about 21 million. Bitcoins are used for electronic purchases and transfers. One can use bitcoins to pay other people. Each and every transaction is logged digitally on a transaction log that tracks the time of purchase and who owns how many bitcoins. This ensures that a bitcoin cannot be duplicated. This digital transaction log is called 'block chain'. The block chain records every single transaction and the ownership of every single bitcoin in circulation. Making payments with bitcoins is easier than using credit cards. If one has a wallet, one only has to enter the recipient's address, the amount of bitcoins to be sent, and click OK. The recipient will then simply receive the request for bitcoins in exchange for what he is offering (goods, services, or currency).
How it is different from ordinary e-cash?
Bitcoin has a completely distributed architecture, without any single trusted entity. Bitcoin assumes that the majority of nodes in its network are honest. In contrast, most e-cash schemes require a centralised bank who is trusted for purposes of e-cash issuance, and double-spending detection. This greatly appeals to individuals who wish for a freely-traded currency not in control by any governments, banks, or authorities—from libertarians to drug-dealers and other underground economy proponents (note that apart from the aforementioned illegal usages, there are numerous legitimate uses as well, which will be mentioned later). In a spirit similar to the original motivation for a distributed Internet, such a purely decentralised system guarantees that no single entity, no matter how initially benevolent, can succumb to the temptation or be coerced by a government into subverting it for its own benefit.
How to trade Bitcoins?
Exchanges provide a place for people to trade bitcoins for other types of currency. Payments to a merchant who accepts Bitcoins are made from the bitcoin wallet by entering the recipient's address and the payment amount.
What gives a Bitcoin its value?
This is the most contentious of all questions. In the first year of bitcoin, there were almost no transactions, but people were spending their energy on generating bitcoins. This is possibly because bitcoins have:
1. Value as a collectible, in a similar manner to people collecting rare metals, stones, shells, postal stamps, paintings and baseball cards.
2. Value from betting that other people may find these collectibles valuable and thus would have to buy some of them from earlier collectors, thus making them richer.
Gold is valuable because it’s rare, durable and mobile, and thus can be collected. And once collected, it can only increase in value when more people want it. In case of bitcoins, the value can appreciate or depreciate in the expectation of investors, buyers, sellers and speculators that bitcoins is a “thing of the future”. One must not be under the impression that the peer-to-peer network is responsible for any single price that people put on bitcoin. There’s clearly no rational way to tell how much money bitcoin “should be worth” today or tomorrow. Pure demand and supply for bitcoins is what determines its price. There may be no demand and hence the bitcoin can become junk. Additionally, frequency of transactions is independent from the total value of the supply. The value of a bitcoin is constantly changing, and there is no centralised exchange for it. Thus each time a bitcoin changes ownership, the two parties need to agree on its price. There is no fixed price. Also the difference between bitcoins and other currencies is that there is no centralised bank that prints the currency and sets relative values.
(Shambo Dey, a student of Government Law College, Mumbai, works as a Research Assistant at Vinod Kothari & Company)
Higher exports and weak imports have provided enough room for India’s merchandise deficit to narrow. However, weak IIP growth, high inflation require immediate corrective action, says SBI Research
Trade numbers released on Monday indicate export growth at merely 3.5% and imports de-growth at 15.2%. As result the overall trade deficit widened marginally to $10.1 billion. It is now believed that FY14 CAD (current account deficit) should go below $40 billion. These are the findings of SBI Research note on Indian economy.
Higher exports and weak imports have provided enough room for India’s merchandise deficit to narrow. This is summarised in the following chart:
The bad news is that IIP (Index of Industrial Production) numbers for the month of November 2013 registered a negative growth of 2.1%. Dismal performance of consumer goods sector continues to be a cause for concern with consumer durables recording a decline of whopping decline at 21.5%, a new low post May 2013. The growth in consumer durable sector is markedly related to CPI (consumer price index) inflation. The galloping inflation now mirrors in galloping contraction in IIP consumer durables, points out SBI Research in its note. This is shown in the graph below:
High inflation has also dented financial savings as reflected in the lukewarm response to CPI-linked inflation index bonds of RBI. These alarming trends require immediate corrective action, warns the research note.
The research note argues, “We believe if the inflation trajectory softens markedly in December 2013, the RBI may have room for reverse policy action/ rate cut at a future date.”
New disclosures from data broker IMS Health reveal how much pharmaceutical firms will pay to know what your doctor is prescribing
Need another reminder of how much drugmakers spend to discover what doctors are prescribing? Look no further than new documents from the leading keeper of such data.
IMS Health Holdings Inc. says it pulled in nearly $2 billion in the first nine months of 2013, much of it from sweeping up data from pharmacies and selling it to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The firm’s revenues in 2012 reached $2.4 billion, about 60 percent of it from selling such information.
The numbers became public because IMS, currently in private hands, recently filed to make a public stock offering. The company’s prospectus gives fresh insight into the huge dollars – and huge volumes of data – flowing through a little-watched industry.
IMS and its competitors are known as prescription drug information intermediaries. Drug company sales representatives, using data these companies supply, can know before entering a doctor’s office if he or she favors their products or those of a competitor. The industry is controversial, with some doctors and patient groups saying it threatens the privacy of private medical information.
The data maintained by the industry is huge. IMS, based in Danbury, Conn., says its collection includes “over 85 percent of the world’s prescriptions by sales revenue,” as well as comprehensive, anonymous medical records for 400 million patients.
All of this adds up to 10 petabytes worth of material — or about 10 million gigabytes, a figure roughly equal to all of the websites and online books, movies, music and TV shows that have been stored by the nonprofit Internet Archive.
IMS Health says it processes and brings order to more than 45 billion health care transactions each year from more than 780,000 different feeds around the world. “All of the top 100 global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are clients” of its products, the firm’s prospectus says.
Dr. Randall Stafford, a Stanford University professor who has used IMS data for his research, said the company has grown markedly in recent years through acquisitions of competitors and other companies that host and analyze data. As the pharmaceutical industry has consolidated, he says, IMS has evolved by offering more services and expanding in China and India.
“They’ve been trying to beef up their competitiveness in some areas by making all of these acquisitions,” he said.
IMS has especially expanded its database of anonymous patient records, which can match patients’ diagnoses with their prescriptions and track changes over time, Stafford said.
IMS sells two types of products: information offerings and technology services. The information products allow pharmaceutical companies to get national snapshots of prescribing trends in more than 70 countries and data about individual prescribers in 50 countries.
IMS’s prospectus offers examples of the questions companies are able to answer with its data, including which providers generate the highest return on a sales rep’s visit, whether a rep drives appropriate prescribing and how much reps should be paid.
IMS Health’s data collection and sales have been controversial.
Several years ago, three states passed laws limiting the ability of IMS and companies like it to collect data on doctors’ prescriptions and sell it to drugmakers for marketing purposes. Their intent was to protect physician and patient privacy and to reduce health care costs by reducing marketing of brand-name drugs. Once a drug loses patent protection and becomes generic, promotion essentially ceases.
IMS and other companies sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in their favor, finding a First Amendment right to collect and sell the information. (ProPublica and a group of media companies filed a legal brief supporting IMS on First Amendment grounds.)
ProPublica has sought to purchase data on individual providers from IMS and some of its competitors but was told by each that it could not buy the information at any price.
Instead, reporters obtained data from Medicare on providers in its taxpayer-subsidized drug program, known as Part D, which fills more than one in every four prescriptions nationally. The data is now on Prescriber Checkup, where anyone can look up individual doctors and compare their prescriptions to peers in their specialty and state.
ProPublica has found that in Part D, some of the top prescribers of heavily marketed drugs received speaking fees from the companies that made them.
Physicians and privacy advocates have argued that prescription records could be used to glean information about specific patients’ conditions without their permission. In addition, physicians have argued that they have a right to privacy about the way they choose drugs — but aren’t asked before pharmacies sell information about them.
Stafford said those concerns have parallels to recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency.
“It’s part of a larger dialogue, which things like the NSA scandal have brought up,” he said. “There’s a lot of data out there that people don’t necessarily know about. ... We’re living in a time where people can accept some loss of privacy, but they at least want to know how their privacy is being compromised.”
In its prospectus, IMS cited several challenges to its growth, including data-protection laws, security breaches and increased competition from other data collectors. The filing notes that the United Kingdom’s National Health Service in 2011 started releasing large volumes of data on doctor prescribing “at little or no charge, reducing the demand for our information services derived from similar data.”
Until 2010, IMS Health was a publicly traded company. At that point, it was acquired for $5.2 billion, including debt, by private-equity groups and the Canadian pension board.
Bloomberg News, citing confidential sources, reported last fall that IMS’s owners may seek to value the company at $8 billion or more.
IMS Health declined to comment for this story, citing the regulatory quiet period before the public offering takes place. No date has been set.