“A fool and his money are soon parted” ~ Thomas Tusser
Since the launch of Bitcoin in 2009, the world of cryptocurrencies has grown larger and more popular, particularly in recent years. There has been an increase in the usage and acceptance of virtual currencies alongside a growing number of tokens and investors. However, with the increase in prominence has also come higher incidence of thefts, fraud and hacking. Since the regulatory framework of virtual currencies remains murky, there is often no recourse for owners in case of fraud or theft.
The onus to keep bitcoins secure thus typically falls on the investor. Users must decide how to store bitcoins and other cryptocurrency tokens in the safest, most secure way possible while still having access to those tokens as needed. Where should you store bitcoin? Technically nowhere, as it’s not actually bitcoins that are stored in the same way as a physical store of value like gold. Indeed, Bitcoin as a network is not actually individual physical coins at all, but rather it is closer to a piece of computer software. Below, we'll take a closer look at what users should know about storing bitcoin and how to keep their holdings safe with a system known as cold storage.
Basics of Bitcoin Wallets
Before we can understand cold storage, we must first explore the concept of a bitcoin wallet. For the cryptocurrency user, wallets function in a somewhat similar way to physical wallets which hold cash. They can be thought of as a storage device for cryptocurrency tokens. However, in most cases wallets are not physical items, and neither are the bitcoin they hold. Rather, they are digital storage tools which have both a public key and a private key. These keys are strings of cryptographic characters which are necessary in order to complete transfers of bitcoin to or from the wallet in question. The public key, analogous to a username, identifies the wallet so that other parties know where to transfer coins during a transaction. The public key, similar to a password, is the wallet's owner's special access code and acts as a security device to help ensure others cannot access the bitcoin stored within.
There are various ways to secure a bitcoin wallet, the popular ones being encryption, backup, multisig and cold storage; none is infallible though. The first way is to encrypt your wallet by using a strong password. The second way is to make a backup of the wallet. Even a computer malfunction can result in a loss of bitcoins, let alone hacking. Multisig is another method is to protect bitcoins. It involves creating a multi-signature transaction system under which more people (usually at least 2 or 3) need to approve the funds being released.
What Is Cold Storage For Bitcoin?
What is Cold Storage?
While wallets provide some measure of security, if the private key is intercepted or stolen, there is often very little that the wallet owner can do to regain access to coins within. One potential solution to this security issue is cold storage.
Cold storage is often seen as even more secure than a traditional wallet. It involves storing bitcoins offline—that is, entirely separate from any Internet access. Keeping bitcoins offline substantially reduces the threat from hackers. There is no need to worry about a hacker gaining digital access to a wallet when the wallet itself is not online.
The method of cold storage is less convenient than encrypting or taking a backup because it can be harder for users to access their coins. Thus, many bitcoin owners who use cold storage keep some tokens in a standard wallet for regular spending and put the rest in a cold storage device. This reduces the effort of digging out coins from the cold storage every now and then for everyday use. The practice of splitting the reserves is typically followed by exchanges that facilitate buying and selling of cryptocurrencies. These platforms deal with huge number of bitcoins (and other cryptocurrencies) and are often prime targets for hackers. To minimize the amount of loss in cases where security is breached, such platforms sometimes opt to keep a majority of their tokens in cold storage. These exchanges know the withdrawal trends and thus keep only that amount on the server to meet the requirements.
Methods of Cold Storage
The commonly used methods of cold storage are:
A paper wallet is a way to safeguard against hackers or computer malfunction and involves printing the public and private keys on paper. In addition, a paper wallet may have a QR code which can be scanned and added to a software wallet to make quick transactions. Since the paper contains all relevant information needed for spending the coins, its safety is crucially important. It’s usually a good idea to encrypt as well as duplicate the paper wallet for more safety
Storage devices like a USB drive are also used to keep the secret keys. Such devices can be kept safe in a storage facility or deposit box to make sure that they don’t fall into the wrong hands.
Hardware wallets are becoming a preferred choice to secure a wallet in an offline mode. These are small devices which are water and virus proof and even support multi signature transactions. They are convenient for sending and receiving virtual currency, have a micro storage device backup and QR code scan camera. Pi-Wallet is an example of a hardware wallet.
Although not especially common or popular, sound wallets are another way to secure virtual currency tokens. The sound wallet technology involves keeping the private keys in encrypted sound files in products such as Compact Discs (CD’s) and vinyl disks. The code hidden in these audio files can be deciphered using a spectroscope app or high-resolution spectroscope.
Deep Cold Storage
In addition to these cold storage methods, the concept of a deep cold storage service has also gained traction in recent years. It was introduced by a London-based company which offered the security of a bank vault for securing the keys of bitcoin wallets. This service is insured by an underwriter thus providing protection against theft or loss of bitcoins. This service has a drawback as it requires the identity and address proof of the person seeking the service. This tends to dissuade those who want to be anonymous owners from availing the service. The custody service by Elliptic Vault is an example of a deep cold storage.