Money has changed forms over the years, from gold coins, to paper bills, to proof of credit. While these forms of money are physically very different, they are all still backed by governments and as such constitute the fiat currencies of the official monetary system. In 2009, bitcoin introduced the world to a completely different kind of currency—one not backed by any government or bank but created through computer code. This cryptocurrency or virtual currency has gained in value and users. According to coinmarketcap.com, as of December 7, 2017, there were approximately 16.7 million bitcoins in circulation with a market capitalization of $260 billion U.S. dollars. Over 300,000 transactions a day occur in bitcoin. But as the value of bitcoin increases, so does the threat of theft or hacks. Since bitcoin does not exist in any physical form and is not stored or regulated by any government body, how does one keep bitcoins safe and secure?
Just the way we keep cash or cards in a physical wallet, bitcoins are also stored in a wallet—a digital wallet. The digital wallet can be hardware-based or web-based (in the form of online wallets). The wallet can also reside on a mobile device, on a computer desktop, or kept safe by printing the private keys and addresses on paper, known as paper wallet. But how safe are any of these digital wallets? The answer to this depends on how the user manages the wallet. Every wallet contains a set of private keys without which the bitcoin owner cannot access the currency. The biggest danger in bitcoin security is the individual user perhaps losing the private key or having the private key stolen. Without the private key, the user will never see her bitcoins again. Besides losing the private key, a user can also lose her bitcoin by computer malfunctions (crashing a hard drive), by hacking, or by physically losing a computer where the digital wallet resides. (Related reading Ways To Earn Bitcoins)
1. Offline Mode
The offline mode of securing bitcoins is called cold storage. Cold storage wallets are not connected to the Internet and are thus less susceptible to hacking. Since accessing a cold storage wallet can be inconvenient, it’s best to split the bitcoins you own. Keep a small amount of bitcoins in an online digital wallet for daily trading needs and keep the rest in cold storage. Cold storage takes the private keys in an offline mode, thus decreasing the chances of theft. The practice of using cold storage is not only popular with individuals but even with cryptocurrency exchanges that deal with huge sums and are often under constant threat by hackers. The popular cold storage methods are paper wallet, sound wallets, storage devices (like a USB drive), and hardware wallets. (Related reading What Is Cold Storage For Bitcoin)
Backup your entire bitcoin wallet early and often. In case of a computer failure, a history of regular backups may be the only way to recover the currency in the digital wallet. Make sure to backup all the wallet.dat files and then store the backup at multiple secure locations (like on a USB, on the hard drive, and on CDs). Not only this, set a strong password on the backup.
Keep your software up to date. A wallet running on non-updated bitcoin software can be a soft target for hackers. The latest version of wallet software will have a better security system in place thereby increasing the safety of your bitcoins. If your software is updated with the latest security fixes and protocol, you may evade a big crisis because of the enhanced security of the wallet. Consistently update your mobile device or computer operating systems and software to make your bitcoins safer.
Encryption adds a layer of security to a particular folder, file, or message as it can only be unlocked by someone who knows the right key to it. Thus encryption simply means using a password for being able to access the Bitcoin wallet. In cases where a desktop, mobile, or hardware wallet is used, encryption is even more important to protect from online rogues. Not only should the password be strong with the use of capital letters, numbers, and special characters, but it should either be memorized or kept at a very safe spot since the password recovery mechanism is very weak in the case of Bitcoin.
The concept of a multi-signature has gained some popularity; it involves an approval from a number of people (say 3 to 5) for a transaction to take place. Thus this limits the threat of theft as a single controller or server cannot carry out the transactions (i.e., sending bitcoins to an address or withdrawing bitcoins). The people who can transact are decided in the beginning and when one of them wants to spend or send bitcoins, they require others in the group to approve the transaction.
The Bottom Line
Since its introduction nearly eight years ago, there have been many incidents of hacking, theft, and fraud involving bitcoin. For bitcoin to grow in legitimacy, safe and reliable storage is very important. Taking a few simple security and backup precautions can greatly increase bitcoin security. (Related reading The Risks Of Buying Bitcoin)