For many people, the idea of digital currencies is closely tied to the idea of criminals carrying out transactions out of sight of the rest of the world. This isn’t really an issue with the currencies themselves. Instead, it’s a reflection on the fact that many people had never heard of Bitcoin before the news started talking about Silk Road being taken apart by the government of the United States. While there are characteristics of the currency that make it particularly attractive to people who are interested in setting up criminal transaction, those are the same characteristics that can help to protect honest people as well.
Silk Road was basically a giant online marketplace where people set up deals for drugs, along with other activities and goods that they wouldn’t have wanted to bring to public attention. It was very deliberately designed to avoid attracting outside attention. It was even set up to be accessible only through the TOR network, which is a system of routers linked together that are intended to forward and exchange messages in such a way that it’s impossible to reliably discern the origin of any of them.
The criminals valued both the currency they were using and the network they were on for the anonymity they provided. This same anonymity protects ordinary citizens as well. TOR, for example, is commonly recommended to human rights activists who are located in countries where speaking out could expose them to serious danger. It allows them to send messages to organizations and people outside the country detailing what’s really happening, with very little risk of being tracked down by their government. In the same way, Bitcoin and other crypto currencies can be protect people who are trying to protect their own privacy, or who are in danger from their own government if someone can prove that they donated money to certain causes.
Since most people don’t hear about these tools in any other context, they tend to assume that they are only for people who are up to something nefarious. In reality, it’s important to remember that the authorities are not always kind, honest, or inclined to allow individuals to enjoy their human rights. Tools that provide privacy online help to ensure that those who are fighting for freedom all over the world have the ability to communicate and engage in transactions without leaving a damning paper trail.