Technology

The Bitcoin bungler - a salutary tale

  • 27 November 2013
  • From the section Technology
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Bitcoin app

Here's a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of climbing aboard the Bitcoin bandwagon. You could lose your entire investment in a moment of carelessness. Then again, you would have to be as daft and forgetful as me.

Here's how it happened. Back in the spring I acquired some Bitcoins - well about half a Bitcoin - to carry out an experiment on behalf of Radio 4's PM programme. I wanted to see how easy it was to use the virtual currency to buy something real - in this case a pizza.

My mission succeeded, although I found it quite a tricky and cumbersome process. I first needed to set up a Bitcoin wallet on a mobile phone, then acquire some currency, paying for it on an exchange using a mobile money app. But having succeeded in getting my lunch delivered, I decided to top up my Bitcoin balance again, so that I still had 0.5 Btc in my mobile wallet.

A few months later I went to a conference about the currency, where I tried out the world's first Bitcoin ATM, putting in £10 and topping up my account to 0.7Btc. So now I had about £43 at that day's exchange rate. At the conference I winced sympathetically when an early adopter explained how he'd lost 7,000 Bitcoins (then $200,000) because he hadn't backed up his private key to his computer.

For months, I thought little about the small investment sitting in an app on my phone. Then I looked at the Bitcoin exchange rate - now pushing towards $900 in the latest extraordinary bubble - and realised it had turned into a rather big investment.

But then I remembered what I'd done with the phone containing the currency. Wanting to make sure it was somewhere I could get easier access, I'd transferred almost my entire Bitcoin holding to a new wallet on another phone that I was testing back in the summer.

Then, a few weeks ago, I offered this phone - supplied by the manufacturer - as a prize in a charity fundraising effort. And before handing it over to the winner I had of course restored it to factory settings, wiping all of my personal data and apps, including my Bitcoin Wallet.

So my Bitcoin holding - now worth upwards of £400 - had vanished into thin air. The record of the transaction sending 0.7 Btc to the wiped phone was still on the original handset, and when I tapped on the app up came a message: "If you lose your device you lose your Bitcoins. This means you need to back up your private keys!"

Of course, I had not done that. so my money had disappeared into the void - and as Bitcoin is by its nature an unregulated currency with no central bank or ombudsmen, there was nobody to whom I could appeal for advice or recompense.

A salutary tale then - but for me a worthwhile lesson in understanding the mechanics of a virtual currency. And I've two sources of comfort - first of all, the man at that conference who lost 7,000 Bitcoins is now down about $6m (£3.7m) by today's exchange rate. And secondly, there is every possibility that we will see that exchange rate plunge again in the coming weeks - so our respective Bitcoin bungles may not matter so much in the long run.