The privacy-centric cryptocurrency Monero is on a roll this week after reaching an all-time high of more than $154 per token on Monday, according to CoinMarketCap.

The Korean cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb, serving South Korea’s explosively active token marketplace, will soon become the latest platform to add support for Monero. There’s even a new site called LocalMonero, where users can arrange to swap cash for Monero instead of relying solely on exchange platforms. Monero community meetups are popping up from Toronto to Los Angeles, echoing that of bitcoin meetups. It is now ranked as one of the world's top ten cryptocurrencies. 

Monero is usually associated with crime, because its anonymity features make it much harder to trace than bitcoin or ether. However, the cryptocurrency is quickly gaining more respect as adoption spreads. So far the similarly anonymous cryptocurrency zcash, which initially suffered from the same reputation problem, appears to be less popular among bitcoin veterans. For now, Monero is the queen bee of anonymous cryptocurrencies, with a current market cap of more than $1.9 billion.

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“The biggest thing for me is cryptocurrency creates the ability to transact privately, and in a manner that is unstoppable,” Riccardo 'Fluffypony' Spagni, Monero’s South African co-founder, told International Business Times. “That has huge value for for certain use cases, like multinational corporations who want to move funds but don’t want their competitors to know...that’s their prerogative. The same goes for people who want to remit funds back to their family.”

Most Monero shopping happens on the dark web, where it’s a popular tender for black market drug aficionados.

“The reality is, right now, the majority of Monero use cases are drugs and tax evasion. I can’t pretend that’s not the case,” Spagni said. “At the same time, the reason we work on Monero is the real, practical use cases. If you live in an oppressive regime, and you need to buy something without your government knowing, then Monero exists for that.”

Since monero is automatically anonymous, it’s hard to say who else is now using it beyond law enforcement’s tally of illicit transactions. It’s easy to imagine monero’s appeal for cryptocurrency users in places like Egypt and Venezuela, where authorities routinely freeze the accounts of political dissidents and activists. According to monero’s website, the decentralized network has dozens of active nodes in countries with well-known censorship issues, including Russia and China, plus a few in countries with religious violence and military tensions such as Israel and Turkey. Nodes don’t directly reflect usage, but they do offer a partial map of community engagement.  

“It is kind of disconcerting that when I pay someone with bitcoin, they can go through my account balance and my account history,” Spagni said. “I think everyone has a right to personal privacy. And I don’t think financial surveillance is a particularly good policing technique.”

Imagine your assets were stored in a glass vault, where anyone could see how much money you have. This is kind of what a bitcoin wallet does, establishing trust through transparency. Some bitcoin users now broadcast bitcoin transactions involving known neo-Nazis. What critics do to expose neo-Nazis could also be weaponized against outspoken users who support reproductive health services or immigration reform.

None of this is to say monero offers infallible privacy. At least one academic research paper proved some older monero transactions could be linked to reveal the history of certain tokens. That was just a bunch of academics. If a nation-state wanted to throw millions of dollars into unveiling monero transactions, it's not an impossibility. Spagni agreed future technologies will likely always be able to crack some of the older codes. Plus, law enforcement agencies are often able to track monero users through other online activity, like posting Instagram photos of illicit narcotics. “Monero doesn’t prevent good old fashioned police work, it only makes it harder to do passive surveillance,” Spagni added. “Monero is not a magic bullet that can protect you from doing stupid stuff.”  

Monero isn’t just a renegade currency. The headless online community also partners with the Software Freedom Law Center for legal advice and official business. Meanwhile, the Monero Research Lab now includes around half a dozen professors, including one academic who uses crowdfunding to work on monero research full time. The monero subreddit thread now has around 22,398 subscribers. 

Technically speaking, monero’s structure gives it an advantage in the march towards scalability. If bitcoin blocks are a metal car, with rigid protocol parameters, imagine monero blocks more like a blockchain accordion. The monero community is already prepping for the Lightning Network, a layered scaling solution expected to give cryptocurrency all kinds of new features. It will probably take a little longer for bitcoin to adopt the same solutions. “I think in the near term, there’s going to be be a lot of scaling with monero through these second tier solutions,” monero co-founder Francisco Cabañas told IBT. “We’re not limited in the protocol, the way we would be with bitcoin.”

Monero is run exclusively by donations and volunteer developers, just like bitcoin and litecoin. Cabañas said monero’s privacy features offer protection for cryptocurrency users on multiple levels, both their own transactions and their broader networks. If someone commits a crime and somehow uses a $20 bill in the process, then three weeks down the road the bill finds its way into your hands, you still don’t need to worry about being associated with the crime. On the other hand, digital currencies with public transaction histories could connect innocent users to criminal investigations or surveillance analytics without their knowledge. One Reddit user pointed out such blacklisted bitcoins could also become harder to sell. So monero’s anonymity safeguards users’ assets on multiple fronts.

“A lot of people think: I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t need to avoid being tracked on the internet.” Spagni said. “When people do realize they have a need for privacy, we will have those tools at a point that they can use them quite easily.”