Can bank ATMs be adapted to offer Bitcoin?

The Bitcoin Depot still wears its protective plastic film.

I recently visited my neighborhood bodega for some paper towels. Okay, okay, it was for some beer, but this trip held a surprise. Still covered in its protective plastic film was a yellow, beehive-themed machine wedged next to the Haagen-Dazs freezer: The Bitcoin Depot. 

On second thought, maybe the design theme is hornet. 

Using this machine, you can buy a number of differently branded crypto currencies with other currencies. I had read about them like one reads about UFOs, but I’d never seen one in the wild. 

And when I say bodega, I mean it: Dusty cans of tuna, wonder bread, a cat and two old guys playing dominoes on the little table out front 24 hours a day. 

The traditional ATM tucked in the opposite corner of the store looked antique by comparison to “The Depot.” With a grimy, worn keypad, small dimly-lit LCD screen and, oh yeah, the handmade “out of order” sign — the ATM (with its $2.50 transaction fee) is looking awfully tired. 

I imagine this is like when an arcade employee set a Space Invaders video game cabinet next to a pinball machine. The next chapter has arrived, and I wonder why traditional banks, with long established ATM networks, aren’t out in front?

The reasons to hesitate are easy to list. Ethereal coins are still sort of hard to wrap one’s mind around, so to see them offered through something so ubiquitous is a little shocking. 

Maybe it was the setting, a bit drab and dusty, but the Bitcoin Depot seemed too soon, too confident, too disruptive, to borrow a poorly aging phrase from Silicon Valley.  

The traditional ATM is easy to understand. It is an avatar: It’s a U.S.-Dollar dispensing, FDIC-insured guaranteeing American institution. The Bitcoin Depot represents what? The sky? Russian hackers? Genuine investors? Nothing?

Then there is the obvious question: Why? Why would I buy Bitcoins at a corner market when I can do it from a home computer or my phone? The simple answer is: It’s the easiest way to use cash to buy Bitcoin anonymously. 

I’ve written before that any Bitcoin skepticism I have comes from how it’s a gift to criminal enterprises, from drug smugglers to hackers. If you ask me, a Bitcoin ATM might as well be branded as a way to hire a hacker in Berlin using cash you just stole from a purse. 

I wonder what sort of event will have to transpire to make Western governments attempt to take out cryptocurrencies. This must add to the hesitancy. Even as Bitcoin becomes ubiquitous it’s being pushed against in real ways. 

At the end of September the Chinese government essentially banned crypto coin trading and mining. Enforcing this appears to be impossible. From my understanding of the technology, the cat is out of the horse barn (I think that’s how that goes…). And even if the winds change, coin exchanges will never be entirely deleted, just driven underground. 

But if all important economic forces on the globe follow suit, coins could become invaluable and useless. We’ll see. 

For the foreseeable future, Bitcoin and its equivalents are also a legitimate investment and payment method that has already expanded into the banking sector. The largest banks are wading in Bitcoin waters and look interested in buying a boat. This is all way past the point of crazy talk. 

The traditional ATM is easy to understand when it’s working.

The Bitcoin Depot is but one such emerging network of machines, so many people are confident enough in this business to be investing very heavily in it. Given the size of my corner market, its owners too have been convinced to give a pretty good chunk of their limited store space to a new machine. I do not know how the Venn diagram of its typical customer and a Bitcoin trader looks, but this store has been in business for thousands of years. They seem to know what they are doing. 

So why shouldn’t your ATMs be Bitcoin trading and collecting the fee revenue? ATMs are everywhere while these startups have a teeny tiny network by comparison. Banks won’t have to worry about the anonymous crime loophole if a named customer is using the machines. Bitcoin trading just needs a menu option. 

Come on developers! Roll out this software upgrade quickly. A repair man has been called to fix the ATM, so if you could have that ready by the time the machine is fixed, that would be great.