Interview with Authors of Bitcoin and Blockchain Security- Free Chapter Included!
Bitcoin and Blockchain Security is a fascinating book published in October 2016 by 2 leading-edge experts: Ghassan Karame, manager and chief researcher at NEC, and Elli Androulaki of IBM Research. The book gives a profound overview on next-generation payment systems, and the security challenges hindering widespread adoption of cryptocurrencies. In this article, Karame and Androulaki talk about the process of researching and writing the book, and give you a sneak preview to the first chapter, exclusive to vpnMentor! Share
What kind of challenges need to be addressed in order for cryptocurrencies to be trusted and implemented as mainstream payment systems?
Security is obviously the most significant challenge that the bitcoin community is facing. If we want cryptocurrency to become a mainstream payment system, we must ensure full resilience to network attacks and consensus-layer attacks.
The second challenge is of course privacy. Bitcoin may be an open and transparent system, but nevertheless, transactional privacy needs to be ensured at all times.
The third challenge is accountability. How do we “punish” misbehaving nodes in an anonymous, permissionless open system?
The fourth challenge is performance, which is a major one. Despite some considerable progress, system scalability and performance are still a major challenge that needs to be overcome in order to ensure a large-scale adoption of the blockchain paradigm. Currently, existing blockchain technologies cannot match the performance or transactional volume of conventional payment methods. For comparison, the Bitcoin blockchain processes a maximum of 7 transactions per second, while Visa, for instance, processes 47,000 transactions per second. Bitcoin has a long way to go in this regard.
Moreover, devising blockchain platforms that can effectively scale to a large number of participants without compromising the security and privacy provisions of the system remains unclear. We only hope that the findings, observations, and lessons contained in our book can elicit further research in this area.
Writing a book is not an easy task – what motivated you to want to devote the time and energy necessary for a project like this?
We were first introduced to Bitcoin in October 2011. At that time, both Elli and I were conducting our post-doctoral research at ETH Zurich. We were reading several media articles mentioning Bitcoin, and were rather curious about the underlying system. A specific article caught our attention at that time: Bitcoins were accepted as a form of payment in a fast-food restaurant in New York. We were not surprised by the fact that people were using Bitcoin for real payments; Our surprise was mainly that Bitcoin— in which a transaction takes almost an hour to be confirmed— was used to handle fast payments! We decided to write a paper that would warn the community of such usage of Bitcoin; in our paper, we showed how double-spending in Bitcoin can be easily realized in the network on unconfirmed transactions.
At that time, we bought 10 Bitcoins with 5 Swiss Francs and I remember thinking: “These Bitcoins are really expensive.” I wish we knew better back then! Our paper was published at ACM CCS 2012, which is one of the most prestigious computer security conferences in the world. Additionally, we proposed a countermeasure to allow quick payments with minimal risk of double-spending, which was eventually integrated in Bitcoin XT.
From that point on, we delved into researching Bitcoin, and published 8 additional papers that appeared at top security venues; Surprisingly for all of us, the first few lines in our introductions had changed from “Bitcoin is receiving considerable attention in the community” to: “Bitcoin has received more adoption than any other digital currency proposed to date”.
Five years later, we decided that it was time to share our Bitcoin experience, and the various lessons that we learned, with a broader audience. That’s how we decided to publish Bitcoin and Blockchain Security.
There is a lot of information available on Bitcoin and blockchain. Why should people invest in buying the book?
Well, in the book, we overview, detail, and analyze the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain, basically capturing 8 years of thorough research on these subjects. Our contributions go beyond the mere analysis of reported vulnerabilities of Bitcoin. For example, we describe and evaluate a number of countermeasures to deter threats on the system, some of which have already been incorporated in the system.
Bitcoin has been forked multiple times in order to fine-tune the consensus, for example – the block generation time and the hash function, and the network parameters (e.g., the size of blocks). For instance, Litecoin and Dogecoin, Bitcoin’s most prominent forks, reduce the block generation time from 10 to 2.5 and 1 minute, respectively. As such, our results in this book are not only restricted to Bitcoin, but apply equally to a number of altcoins that are basically clones or forks of the Bitcoin source code. As far as we are aware, this book emerges as the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin and of its related clones/variants.
We tried to take a holistic approach in covering the security and privacy throughout the entire life cycle of coin expenditure in the system. We covered important issues such as the security of transaction confirmation in the system, the fairness of the mining process, users’ privacy, Bitcoin wallets security, network attacks, the security and privacy of lightweight clients, among others.
Our focus was on documenting the security lessons we learned throughout 8 years of research. We also tried to answer the important questions that came up during our research, as detailed in the first chapter below you, as well as some of the larger questions pertinent to cryptocurrencies in general.
Who will benefit most from reading Bitcoin and Blockchain Security? Who do you want to read it?
(Laughing) We hope everyone will buy it! Really, this book is mostly intended for computer scientist/engineers and security experts. If you are interested in Bitcoin, and you do have general computer science knowledge, this book will teach you all that you need to know about the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin.
Below is the first chapter of Bitcoin and Blockchain Security, which the authors have kindly agreed to share with vpnMentor readers.
The complete version of the book can be found on the Artech house website.
With the publication of the Bitcoin white paper in 2008, and the subsequent delivery of a first prototype implementation of Bitcoin 2 months later, the individual or group behind the alias “Satoshi Nakamoto” was able to forge a new class of decentralized currency. Unlike previous electronic cash proposals, this proposal was rather straightforward, explained in a concise white paper comprising 8.5 single-column pages, and relying on basic cryptographic constructs, such as hash functions and digital signatures. The release of the proof of concept implementation
of Bitcoin shortly after the dissemination of the white paper was extremely timely and important for the subsequent growth of Bitcoin. The working implementation confirmed that, unlike previous proposals, the system is clearly feasible/workable, and scales to a large number of nodes. Open-sourcing the implementation was also an excellent call for developers to maintain and support the growth of the system.
The design of Bitcoin offered the world a promise for a low-cost decentralized and anonymous currency. The core idea of Bitcoin is simple. The system allows two or more parties to exchange financial transactions without passing through intermediaries (such as banks or payment processors). These transactions are validated collectively in a peer-to-peer network by all users. This not only eliminates the need for centralized control (e.g., by banks), but also reduces the cost of making transactions (at the national and international levels). The premise of ease of use and anonymity were also appealing features of the original design; Bitcoin does not require users to register their identity/credentials nor does it require them to fill out endless forms in order to set up an account. More importantly, Bitcoin users could operate using pseudonyms—without ever revealing their true identity.
Bitcoin’s design relies on a clever and well-incentivized cooperation between users in the network. Namely, peers in the network need to receive and validate all broadcasted transactions—regardless of their respective geographical location. Peers confirm transactions in blocks, by solving a computational puzzle. The puzzle’s difficulty is dynamically adjusted based on the computing power in the network, and those peers who succeed in solving the puzzle (and therefore confirm transactions) are financially rewarded. Such reliance on computational puzzles is an effective mechanism to provide a decentralized time-stamping service in the network, and an effective deterrent of Sybil attacks, whereby users create several fake identities in the hope of increasing their advantage in the open network. Namely, the vote or impact that these users exhibit in the network does not depend on the number of their accounts, but is tightly coupled with their available computing power. This clever design was enough to attract enough traction and participation in Bitcoin across the community.
- Open-sourcing Bitcoin’s code solicits the participation of skilled developers who are interested in attaining immediate impact in the community. Their contribution to the Bitcoin code will be reflected in official Bitcoin client releases, which will impact the experience of all Bitcoin users.
- Users were asked to collaboratively contribute in confirming financial transactions; besides involving active user participation in regulating the Bitcoin ecosystem, several users saw in Bitcoin a novel way to invest their computing power and collect immediate financial returns.
- Bitcoin drew a considerable number of consumers who were seeking refuge in the anonymity prospects of the emerging digital currency. This probably explains why Bitcoin’s first adopters were believed to be involved in illegal activities and controversial businesses.
These facts ensured a rapid growth of the Bitcoin community in spite of the suspicious disappearance of Bitcoin’s founder Satoshi Nakamoto shortly after its release. A number of reports claim that this disappearance was an outcome of the increasing adoption of the system. However, until the time of writing, there are no facts that substantiate these claims.
The rapid growth of the system was however only skeptically received by the financial sector and by the research community. Financial market makers were skeptical about the sustainability of Bitcoin, given the absence of regulations and legislations. As well, researchers criticized the lack of governance in Bitcoin, the underlying economic model, and the security and privacy provisions of the system. The latter point received considerable attention in various academic computer science communities; the literature features a considerable number of reported attacks, such as double-spending attacks, Eclipse attacks, selfish mining attacks, as well as thorough analyses criticizing the lack of privacy provisions in the system.
Nevertheless, in spite of the ongoing research criticism, and the considerable number of reported attacks on the system, Bitcoin grew to witness a wider adoption and attention than any other digital currency proposed to date. At the time of writing, Bitcoin holds the largest market share among all existing digital currencies, with a market cap of a few billion USD. There are also numerous businesses, exchange platforms, and banks that are currently built around the Bitcoin ecosystem.
One of the (many) reasons that led to the sustainability of the Bitcoin system was the ability of the developers to assimilate research results from the security community and integrate them swiftly within the development of released client implementations. This strategy has probably saved the Bitcoin community from a wide range of attacks and threats that would have definitely crippled Bitcoin’s growth. This also led to an implicit partnership between various researchers working on analyzing and securing Bitcoin and the Bitcoin development community. The
immediate outcome is that several of the countermeasures proposed by the research community have been effectively integrated in official Bitcoin client releases.
Nevertheless, several security challenges remain ahead for Bitcoin, and there seems to be a sharp disagreement in the community and among core Bitcoin developers on the necessary strategies to sustain the growth of the system. These debates were mostly fueled by discussions on expanding Bitcoin’s block sizes. More specifically, a subset of the core developers were in favor of increasing the block size beyond the default cap of 1 MB in order to better cope with the growth of the network, while the rest of developers opposed such a move in the fear of changing/worsening the current network dynamics. This large debate resulted in the exit of developers who were favoring the increase of the maximum block size—a move that many see as the start of the decline of the emerging currency.
In this book, we are not concerned with contributing to the debate on the best strategies to sustain the growth of the system, nor do we plan to take part in favoring any of the existing Bitcoin forks (Bitcoin core, Bitcoin classic, Bitcoin XT), nor do we aim at suggesting/motivating any particular scalability changes to the core Bitcoin system. We definitely do not wish to contribute to the speculations about the future of the currency. Our view (which several other researchers in the community also share) is that the Bitcoin experiment has clearly succeeded. We base this view on the fact that no other proposal for digital currency—besides Bitcoin—has withstood the test of time; Bitcoin has sustained more than 9 years of operation. Namely, no other digital currency proposal—besides Bitcoin—has witnessed such a massive adoption by users/vendors/businesses.
This massive adoption of Bitcoin has truly fueled innovation, and there are currently more than 500 alternate blockchains—most of which are simple variants of Bitcoin. Bitcoin unveiled a key-enabling technology and a hidden potential within the system, the blockchain. Indeed, the blockchain allows transactions, and any other data, to be securely stored and verified without the need of any centralized authority. Note that the community has been in search of a scalable distributed consensus protocol for a considerable amount of time.
In this book, we overview, detail, and analyze the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain—effectively capturing 8 years of thorough research on these subjects. Our contributions go beyond the mere analysis of reported vulnerabilities of Bitcoin; namely, we describe and evaluate a number of countermeasures to deter threats on the system—some of which have already been incorporated in the system. Recall that Bitcoin has been forked multiple times in order to fine-tune the consensus (i.e., the block generation time
and the hash function), and the network parameters (e.g., the size of blocks).
For instance, Litecoin and Dogecoin—Bitcoin’s most prominent forks—reduce the block generation time from 10 to 2.5 and 1 minute, respectively. As such, the results reported in this book are not only restricted to Bitcoin, but apply equally to a number of altcoins that are basically clones/forks of the Bitcoin source code. As far as we are aware, this book emerges as the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin and of its related clones/variants.
This book takes a holistic approach in covering the security and privacy throughout the entire life cycle of coin expenditure in the system—effectively covering the security of transaction confirmation in the system, the fairness of the mining process, the privacy of users, the security of Bitcoin wallets, network attacks, the security and privacy of lightweight clients, among others. More importantly, the book aims to answer the following important questions:
- What are the actual assumptions governing the security of Bitcoin? Is Bitcoin truly secure if 50% of the mining computing power is honest?
- To which extent do the scalability measures adopted in Bitcoin threaten the underlying security of the system?
- To which extent does Bitcoin offer privacy to its users? How can one quantify the user privacy offered by Bitcoin?
- Are lightweight clients secure? To what extent do lightweight clients threaten the privacy of users?
- What are the proper means to secure Bitcoin wallets?
- Who effectively controls Bitcoin?
- How do the security and privacy provisions of other blockchain technologies compare to Bitcoin?
- What are the security lessons learned after 8 years of massive research into Bitcoin?
Thoroughly reporting on security and privacy vulnerabilities of systems can be often confused with criticism. The aim of this book is solely to provide our readers with the first in-depth analysis of the Bitcoin system with the goal of laying down the basic foundations for constructing next generation secure blockchain currencies and technologies. Based on recent incidents and observations, we additionally show that the vital operations and decisions that Bitcoin is currently undertaking are not decentralized. More specifically, we show that a limited set of entities currently control the services, decision making, mining, and incident resolution processes in Bitcoin. We also show that third-party entities can unilaterally decide to “devalue” any specific set of Bitcoin addresses pertaining to any entity participating in the system. In the following section, we present a detailed outlook of the contents of this book.
1.1 BOOK STRUCTURE
The remainder of this book is organized as follows.
1.1.1 Chapter 2
In Chapter 2, we start with an overview of the predecessors of Bitcoin and their associated crypto-based payment schemes, with a particular focus on their security, privacy provisions, and implementation deficiencies. We also define the notions of payment security and privacy as considered in existing payment systems. As such, this chapter provides the necessary background knowledge for readers to assess cryptocurrencies that emerged prior to Bitcoin and understand the various gaps that could not be captured by previous proposals—these were mainly the gaps that Bitcoin promises to fill.
1.1.2 Chapter 3
In Chapter 3, we detail the operation of Bitcoin and summarize the main scalability measures integrated in the system. We explain the cryptographic building blocks that Bitcoin leverages and detail the various data structures used in the Bitcoin system. We also describe the different roles that participants can assume in the Bitcoin ecosystem. As such, this chapter lays down those foundations of the Bitcoin protocol that are essential for the readers to dive into the security and privacy provisions of the system in the following chapters.
1.1.3 Chapter 4
In Chapter 4, we thoroughly analyze the security provisions of Bitcoin in light of recent published attacks, and we discuss possible countermeasures. For instance, we show that the initial measures adopted in Bitcoin to handle fast payments are not enough to deter double-spending attacks, and discuss a first workable countermeasure against double-spending that is currently integrated in Bitcoin. Fast payments refer to payments where the time between the exchange of currency and goods is short (in the order of a minute). While the Bitcoin proof-of-work (PoW) based time-stamping mechanism is essential for the detection of double-spending attacks (i.e, in which an adversary attempts to use some of his or her coins for two or more payments), it requires tens of minutes to verify a transaction and is therefore inappropriate for fast payments. Clearly, there is only limited value in verifying the payment after the user has obtained the goods (and, e.g., left the store) or services (e.g., access to online content).
We also show that an adversary can deny the delivery of blocks and transactions to victim Bitcoin nodes for a considerable amount of time. We show that this can be achieved by exploiting Bitcoin bandwidth optimization techniques and the measures that are in place to tolerate network delays and congestion. The minimal requirement for this attack to succeed in practice is simply that the attacker can establish at least one connection to the victim. An even more powerful attack resulting in almost indefinite delays at the victim node only requires that the attacker can fill the victim’s remaining open connection slots—without necessarily causing any network partitioning in the Bitcoin network.
These results therefore motivate the need for a careful design of the scalability mechanisms adopted in Bitcoin. While existing mechanisms limit the amount of
propagated information in the system to the minimum necessary, we show that these techniques come at odds with security and reduce the ability of the network to, for example, detect double-spending attacks, resolve, or prevent blockchain forks. For instance, these findings suggest that an adversary who commands more than 33% of the computing power in the network can control the fate and security of all Bitcoin transactions. In this respect, we describe a modification of the block request process in Bitcoin to deter this misbehavior.
1.1.4 Chapter 5
In Chapter 5, we address user privacy in Bitcoin. Namely, in spite of the reliance on pseudonyms, the public time-stamping mechanism of Bitcoin raises serious concerns with respect to the privacy of users. In fact, given that Bitcoin transactions basically consist of a chain of digital signatures, the expenditure of individual coins can be publicly tracked.
In this chapter, we evaluate the privacy that is provided by Bitcoin. This is achieved (1) by investigating the behavior of Bitcoin client and exploiting its properties, and (2) by evaluating the privacy provisions in light of recent reported attacks on the system. Motivated by these attacks, we also discuss a number of possible measures that can be used to enhance the privacy of users in Bitcoin.
Here, we cover system-based solutions, such as CoinJoin and mixers, as well as cryptographic-based solutions that enable privacy-preserving payments atop Bitcoin—such as ZeroCoin, Extended ZeroCoin, and ZeroCash.
1.1.5 Chapter 6
In Chapter 6, we analyze the security and privacy of lightweight Bitcoin clients. These clients support a simplified payment verification (SPV) mode where only a small part of the blockchain is downloaded—thus enabling the usage of Bitcoin on constrained devices (e.g., smartphones, cheap virtual private servers). SPV clients were proposed by Nakamoto in the original white paper and were later extended to rely on Bloom filters in order to receive transactions that are relevant to their local wallet. These Bloom filters embed all the addresses used by the SPV clients, and are outsourced to more powerful Bitcoin nodes; these nodes will then forward to the SPV clients those transactions relevant to their wallets. Besides analyzing the security of existing SPV implementations, we also explore their privacy provisions due to the use of Bloom filters. We show that the current integration of Bloom filters within Bitcoin leaks considerable information about the addresses of Bitcoin users. This analysis is not only restricted to Bitcoin, but equally applies to other digital currencies that rely on similar SPV implementations. Our findings therefore motivate a careful assessment of the current implementation of SPV clients prior to any large-scale deployment.
1.1.6 Chapter 7
In Chapter 7, we analyze the current Bitcoin ecosystem. Although Bitcoin does not truly solve all of the challenges faced by previously proposed digital currencies, Bitcoin grew to witness a wider adoption and attention than any other digital currency proposed to date. At the time of writing, Bitcoin holds the largest market share among all existing digital currencies In this chapter, we overview the main operation of Bitcoin and describe a number of businesses, exchange platforms, and wallets that are currently built around the Bitcoin ecosystem. We also analyze the limits of decentralization in the Bitcoin ecosystem. Namely, based on recent incidents and observations, we show that the vital operations and decisions that Bitcoin is currently undertaking are not decentralized. More specifically, we show that a limited set of entities currently control the services, decision making, mining, and the incident resolution processes
in Bitcoin. We also discuss the security of online wallets and outline a number of innovative techniques to ensure the protection of private keys against compromise and/or loss.
1.1.7 Chapter 8
In Chapter 8, we overview a number of interesting applications built atop Bitcoin’s blockchain. Namely, we describe Namecoin, the first clone of Bitcoin, which implements a decentralized Domain Name Service for registering Web addresses that end in “.bit,” and which is resilient to censorship. We then overview Litecoin and Dogecoin, two of the most known altcoins derived from Bitcoin. We also discuss other applications of the Bitcoin blockchain, such as decentralized and authenticated storage and smart contracts. We additionally show how Bitcoin can
be used to instantiate a decentralized time-dependent randomness generator. Finally, we discuss current efforts to repurpose the proof-of-work of Bitcoin toward useful computations, among other proposals by digital assets and sidechains to extend the basic functionality of Bitcoin.
1.1.8 Chapter 9
In Chapter 9, we overview a number of interesting blockchain proposals that are currently competing with Bitcoin. These proposals have been mainly motivated by the success of Bitcoin and attempt to solve some of the caveats encountered in the Bitcoin system.
Namely, we describe Ripple, Ethereum, and the IBM Open BlockChain technologies.We compare these blockchains to Bitcoin with respect to their security and privacy provisions.
1.1.9 Chapter 10
Finally, in Chapter 10, we summarize the main lessons learned from the previous chapters. Namely, we summarize the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin, and its underlying blockchain—effectively capturing 8 years of thorough research on these subjects. In addition to discussing existing vulnerabilities of Bitcoin and its various related altcoins, we also summarize possible countermeasures to deter threats and information leakage within the system. As far as we are aware, this book offers the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of the security and privacy provisions of Bitcoin and of its related clones/variants. We hope that the contents of the book provide the necessary tools and building blocks for the design of secure next-generation blockchain technologies.