This is the doomsday scenario: bitcoin's market cap goes into the trillions of dollars and the cost/benefit ratio of cracking the encryption algorithm tips so that it becomes attractive to throw massive computing resources at a hitherto-impossible scale at the problem.

The same encryption secures the websites of the world, so there is currently a pretty good reason for "cracking" pools to form. But there is insufficient centralization of value, plus human intervention, to prevent the full scenario to unfold - the web would be shut down before all accounts everywhere were drained. These two factors are largely absent with bitcoin.

A round number, within a few trillion dollars, will be sufficiently precise. If there are too many variables, or you have no idea, then please feel free to just make up a number!

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    Can you explain what you mean by "cracking Bitcoin"? There are a number of cryptographic algorithms involved in Bitcoin (proof-of-work, ECSDA, RIPE-MD hashing for addresses, etc). Each would have different benefits to attack. All of them have the problem that if you break the security of Bitcoin in a serious way and steal trillions of dollars in coins, people will probably not want to use Bitcoin anymore because it's now insecure. Bitcoin only has value because people want to use it, so this would render your stolen coins worthless. – Nate Eldredge Jun 7 '17 at 16:17
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    You might wreck the economy by doing this, but you wouldn't really profit. So it's hard to estimate what "gains" to include in such an analysis. Likewise, it's hard to guess the cost of such attacks - you can extrapolate from currently available technology, but in practice, you would hope that once you invested a sufficiently large amount of money, you would discover new ways to bring down the cost. But I suspect any reasonable estimate would come out many orders of magnitude higher than the value of all the earth's goods and services. – Nate Eldredge Jun 7 '17 at 16:19
  • I don't have any knowledge of the specific algorithms used by bitcoin. Not just many times, but orders of magnitude greater than all the wealth in the world? I won't lie awake worrying about that! – Tom Russell Jun 8 '17 at 2:41

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