After years of languishing in semi-obscurity, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are back in the spotlight after they recently hit record-breaking prices. Now, amid the frenzy, some enthusiasts are finding creative ways to use cryptocurrencies to drive charitable giving.
As the value of popular digital currencies climbs, it soon becomes impractical for the average person to mine them. It now takes expensive rigs of dedicated, energy-intensive hardware built on application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to mine bitcoins. Some of this equipment costs thousands of dollars, making it difficult or impossible for casual hobbyists to participate, explains activist and Hunter College artist Grayson Earle.
Earle is one of the founders of Bail Bloc, a new distributed cryptocurrency mining operation that donates its proceeds to charity. Bail Bloc gives all of the funds generated by its users to the Bronx Freedom Fund, which pays bail for people who can’t afford it and might lose their job or custody of their children as a result of jail time.
By mid-December, after one month of operation, Bail Bloc had donated about $3,000 thanks to around 1,000 volunteers who agreed to use their personal computers to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero.
Bail Bloc runs in the background of a user’s computer, independently mining cryptocurrency that is automatically transferred to the organization. A typical computer almost never uses the full capacity of its processing power, so Bail Bloc asks for a small chunk of the unused space and quietly churns out Monero while users go about their day.
“It’s basically totally unobtrusive,” says Earle of the technical demands of running Bail Bloc. “The only time you would recognize it is if you were rendering video of Pixar or something. The system impact is roughly equivalent to watching a YouTube video.”
However, this approach has raised some eyebrows—malware uses the exact same technique, but without a user’s consent. Earle says that since launching his project, he’s run into several people who are suspicious of allowing some network to use their computer for financial matters.
“The trust issue is definitely our biggest problem,” says Earle. “And there’s also this problem on a lot of Windows computers that have antivirus—it gets picked up and gets flagged.”
The Internet is littered with the graves of failed cryptocurrency charity projects. A similar group called Mining for Charity closed up shop in 2013 after they failed to raise enough to stay in business. A cryptocurrency called DonationCoin that was intended to be mined for charitable donations is just about worthless.
Some of these organizations may have faltered because they avoided Bitcoin before there were viable alternatives. Now that Bitcoin mining operations are too centralized to be accessible, Bail Bloc’s success may come from its decision to use Monero, the value of which is largely insulated from Bitcoin’s fluctuations.
By starting Bail Bloc, Earle wanted to offer an effortless form of crowdfunding, where people could create change by using the untapped power of their devices. He was inspired by a 1999 initiative called “SETI@home,” where the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute made up for a lack of funding by creating a distributed supercomputer. People would receive a portion of raw satellite data, crunch the numbers into a usable format, and send it back to headquarters. In that sense, everyone had a stake in the outcome.
Bail Bloc works the same way, but instead of looking for aliens, members mine Monero. Each device donates computing power to keep track of the ledger of all Monero transactions in history. Each transaction takes a great deal of computing power to verify and assimilate into the record, hence the need for a large network of hard drives. Every once in a while, the data for a transaction has a reward attached to it in the form of Monero.
This currency is a small incentive for miners to keep the ledger up and running. Once they earn it, they send it over to Bail Bloc, which exchanges it for Bitcoin and sells it for US dollars, which it donates to the Bronx Freedom Fund.
The average bail payment, according to the Bronx Freedom Fund, is around $750 dollars. And since 98 percent of people for whom the charity has posted bail have shown up to court, much of the money provided by Bail Bloc will rotate in and out of the system and be used for multiple bail payments.