Vires in Numeris – ‘Strength in Numbers’ – is the motto printed on the back of  a minted Bitcoin: a decentralised peer-to-peer digital crypto-currency. It has the potential to ensure a high degree of anonymity. It is also only the most famous of a growing breed of digital currency that rely upon secure, encrypted peer-to-peer exchange.

Its trust, worth and constant use lie entirely outside of the ‘fiat’ of our conventional financial and institutional system. Its legitimacy derives from the community that uses it. In its initial years users were mainly drawn from the niche tech and online community, but it is now making the transition from the margin to the mainstream.

This paper is the first in a series introducing a Demos project on the fuller implications of crypto-currencies including their challenges and opportunities, both online and offline, for business, consumers, law enforcement and financial services. It sets out what a Bitcoin is, how the currency operates, and some of the possible futures of digital currencies.