In July, a bitcoin startup named Xapo announced it was raising $20 million, bringing its total backing to $40 million. It was using this funding for an unusually intense security setup. Xapo tells users that they can feel secure because their bitcoin will be stored in offline servers, scattered across multiple continents, in secret underground vaults, with armed guards, and biometric sensors. We sat down with Xapo CEO Wences Casares to discuss why he thinks such extreme measures are necessary and how he sees bitcoin changing the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed
What makes you so passionate about bitcoin?
"When I was growing up, I saw them lose everything, three times."
My parents were sheep ranchers in Patagonia, and when I was growing up, I saw them lose everything, three times. A lot of people in America don’t understand what it’s like when your family loses everything. And when it happened in Argentina, you see your parents have all this anxiety, it has consequences that are more than just economic, something happens to the whole society, it takes a long time to build back, to recover.
There is only about 1.5 billion people who have a bank account the way you and I do, with a credit card and checkbook, so there are more than 5 billion people who don’t have that. Basically they don’t have the right to safekeep the fruits of their labor. They work very hard all day, they get $5 for that, and then they are forced to keep it in cash.
I think that bitcoin is going to change the world more than the internet did, and I’m very conscious of what I’m saying. I know that it’s hard to imagine, but I truly think that it touches something that matters more to a huge percentage of the world. We don’t see the problem here in America. I think it will take longer to develop, but it will have a bigger impact, by giving the majority of people in the world the ability to affordably safekeep their money.
How will bitcoin enable people to get bank accounts who couldn’t before?
"bitcoin is going to change the world more than the internet did."
Think of the cellphone. There were never more than 1.2 billion landlines. Then the cellphone came and we’re at 6.3 billion. Why? It’s not because only those people wanted to communicate. The landlines were all post-pay. You need to have credit to get one. The cell phones were pre-paid. Suddenly you could get one with cash. It had nothing to do with technology. It was an economic restriction. Now there are 1.5 billion bank accounts, same threshold as land lines. I think bitcoin will allow us to see 6.3 billion people banking on their cell phones. That’s what’s so exciting to me. That’s a much better world than we have today.
So if bitcoin is so safe and affordable, why are you going to these crazy length with security?
We take the private keys of those coins and put them in offline servers in underground vaults, with armed security, and biometric sensors, and all that stuff, because that was the only way we could get it insured. In fact, it’s worse than that. There are several servers, each one in a different continent, with different keys, and you would need to break into all of them, within 24 hours.
"It’s a little bit extreme, actually ridiculously extreme."
I wouldn’t keep my coins any other way. I know what the bad guys are doing. I wouldn’t keep them on my computer, or my phone. It takes building things. Unlike with banks, you have a piece of code that is worth money. For us to get the insurance, we wouldn’t get it if there was a high risk of a hack. If you’re not thorough with your security the insurance guys won’t touch you. It’s a little bit extreme, actually ridiculously extreme, but you do all this work up front so you can play this game for the long haul.
But doesn’t it defeat the purpose of a fast, safe digital currency if you have to keep it in an offline bank vault?
We designed it so that you can have the best of both worlds. You have two accounts that are coupled. If you are using bitcoin for payments, you keep some in your wallet, which can be accessed anytime. You can send and receive bitcoins in real time on the web, over email, text message, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. Whatever you want to insure you send to the vault. Because we don’t have to have that bitcoin readily available, it takes 24 hours, we can do things that would otherwise be impossible. It’s like a checking and savings account. Convenience and security.
What is the state of bitcoin right now?
There are 6 million people in the world who have used bitcoin, and only 300,000 of them have ever actually used it to pay for something. So most people are using it as a store of value.
I believe that this is the perfect native internet currency. It has all the attributes to flow across the web and mobile just as bits flow, as information moves. And that can change the world, but not with only 6 million people. Maybe with six hundred million.
"It has all the attributes to flow across the web and mobile just as bits flow."
What would it take to get there?
What’s happening right now with bitcoin is very much like what was happening with the internet in 1992. Before the browser, someone looks at TCP/IP and says, oh my God, this thing moves information from anywhere to anywhere real time and for free! It’s going to change information forever, so I’m going to launch Netflix. Well, hold on. Yes, but not now. Not for 20 years. First we need much better computers, more broadband, lots of things have to happen. Same thing with bitcoin. Yes, it will change everything, but not now, not yet. Email with 6 million people wasn’t email, it was a curiosity.
It seems like a lot of big e-commerce sites are now accepting bitcoin. Aren’t people paying for goods with it right now?
"It’s a sideshow to distract the idiots."A good currency has two main use cases, a store of value and a payment mechanism. Right now what we are seeing with bitcoin is most people using it just as a store of value. A lot of people like to write and talk about using bitcoin to buy things, but they confuse the way they would like things to be with the way the world really is right now. They are writing about this fantasy. I don’t see it happening with my users. I look at the blockchain and I don’t see it happening there. Even though there are some-big name merchants that accept it, show me anyone that is doing more than 1 percent of their transactions in BTC. It’s irrelevant, it’s just a press release. That’s not where the BTC action is happening. It’s a sideshow to distract the idiots. If you’re in the industry and you know what’s going on, it has nothing to do with that.
So how will it happen?
Trying to push payments now, trying to replace credit cards, I think would be a mistake. Like trying to push video in 1992. Dogecoin taught us a lot. The kind of things they were doing, five cents here, five centers there, are where bitcoin can thrive. No fighting to replace credit cards right now. Enable the flow of tips and small transactions around the internet, that is the more natural entry point. We play tic tac toe online: I put down 50 bits, you put 50 bits. I win and buy a song. You leave me a little tip on an article because you like my comment. It’s whatever, but it flows.
"What is truly remarkable is the story of zero to 6 million."When people write the history of this thing, of bitcoin, they are not going to write the story of 6 million to a billion. What is truly remarkable is the story of zero to 6 million. It has already happened! And we’re not paying attention! That’s incredible. That’s what had one chance in a million and it already happened.
Bitcoin, the community, we are going to add more than 1 million this month, we will be at 10 million by the end of the year, and if it keeps growing the way it has, it will be at more than a billion within five years. Each one of those people are infecting new people so that a few more join each month, and it’s then that payments start to happen organically.