A currency surging in value at a breathtaking rate last week belongs to no nation and is issued by no central bank. It can be used to buy gold in California, a hamburger in Berlin or a house in Alberta. When desired, it can offer largely untraceable transactions.
The coin in question has a global circulation worth more than $1.4 billion on paper. Yet almost no one, it seems, knows the true identity of its creator. In the United States, this mysterious money has become the darling of anti-government libertarians and computer wizards prospecting in the virtual mines of cyberspace. In Europe, meanwhile, it has found its niche as the coinage of anarchic youth.
The currency is bitcoin, a kind of cybermoney initially traded among hackers and cryptologists, and increasingly traded on websites and exchanged for goods and services. Two years ago, one bitcoin was worth less than $1. Two months ago, the price for one unit surged above $20 on a proliferation of cyberexchanges from Tokyo to Moscow. A sudden burst of new interest sent its value soaring to a record $147 Wednesday.