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Blog Post Jan 11, 2022

What Does “Crypto” Really Mean?

What does “crypto” mean? It seems a straightforward question, but the answer is quite complicated. Ten years ago, the answer would be unanimous: it means cryptography, how information is encrypted. However, the rise of blockchain-based currencies—like Bitcoin and Ethereum—brought a shift in how the public thinks about the term.

There’s been quite a bit of debate about using crypto in this new context because cryptography is an expansive field, but blockchain technology isn’t necessarily a part of it. But just because cryptography doesn’t need blockchain, doesn’t mean blockchain doesn’t need cryptography.

The “Crypto” in Cryptocurrency

The adoption of crypto for blockchain-based currency makes a certain amount of sense. While blockchain technology is separate from foundational cryptography, it uses some cryptographic primitives as a base. A blending of cryptographic concepts is present.

When considering traditional cryptography like that used in public key infrastructure (PKI), what you’re really talking about is protecting root and private keys with algorithms and hashing. That’s the core of most modern digital security—and the basis of the security that protects cryptocurrency as well. Although blockchain and traditional encryption are not the same, blockchain could not exist without the principles of cryptography. That’s where the two definitions of crypto overlap.

However, the reason the changing definition of crypto is troubling to old-school cryptographers lies in how the two things differ. A conflation of blockchain and cryptography doesn’t help people accurately understand either technology. While they utilize some similar elements and have some of the same applications, they are not meant to be used interchangeably. Traditional PKI solutions excel at encryption and security, and blockchain has numerous applications unrelated to cryptography.

So, Should You Call It Crypto?

Cryptography is present in just about every piece of technology people use these days. It’s so commonplace that most people don’t even realize they’re interacting with encryption. And when people don’t realize it’s there, they don’t need to talk about it. The reality of language is that words and their definitions change with the times. If enough people decide a word means something, that’s what it means—and like it or not, the public today says crypto means cryptocurrency.

To learn more about the crypto/cryptocurrency debate, listen to Root Causes, episode 194, "Crypto Versus Cryptocurrency.”