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I Am Not Satoshi Nakamoto

This isn’t the first time I’ve received an e-mail like this:

Hey! I’ve done my research and looked at a lot of facts and old forgotten archives. I know that you are Satoshi, I do not want to tell anyone about this. I just wanted to say that you created weapons of mass destruction where niches remained poor and the rich got richer! When bitcoin first appeared, I was small, and alas, my family lost everything on this, you won’t find an apple in the winter garden, people only need strength and money. Sorry for the English, I am from Russia, I can write with errors. You are an amazingly intelligent person, very intelligent, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Once I dreamed of a better life for myself and my children, but this will never come …

I like the bit about “old forgotten archives,” by which I assume he’s referring to the sci.crypt Usenet group and the Cypherpunks mailing list. (I posted to the latter a lot, and the former rarely.)

For the record, I am not Satoshi Nakamoto. I suppose I could have invented the bitcoin protocols, but I wouldn’t have done it in secret. I would have drafted a paper, showed it to a lot of smart people, and improved it based on their comments. And then I would have published it under my own name. Maybe I would have realized how dumb the whole idea is. I doubt I would have predicted that it would become so popular and contribute materially to global climate change. In any case, I did nothing of the sort.

Read the paper. It doesn’t even sound like me.

Of course, this will convince no one who doesn’t already believe. Such is the nature of conspiracy theories.

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Disrupting Ransomware by Disrupting Bitcoin

Ransomware isn’t new; the idea dates back to 1986 with the “Brain” computer virus. Now, it’s become the criminal business model of the internet for two reasons. The first is the realization that no one values data more than its original owner, and it makes more sense to ransom it back to them — sometimes with the added extortion of threatening to make it public — than it does to sell it to anyone else. The second is a safe way of collecting ransoms: bitcoin.

This is where the suggestion to ban cryptocurrencies as a way to “solve” ransomware comes from. Lee Reiners, executive director of the Global Financial Markets Center at Duke Law, proposed this in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Journalist Jacob Silverman made the same proposal in a New Republic essay. Without this payment channel, they write, the major ransomware epidemic is likely to vanish, since the only payment alternatives are suitcases full of cash or the banking system, both of which have severe limitations for criminal enterprises.

It’s the same problem kidnappers have had for centuries. The riskiest part of the operation is collecting the ransom. That’s when the criminal exposes themselves, by telling the payer where to leave the money. Or gives out their banking details. This is how law enforcement tracks kidnappers down and arrests them. The rise of an anonymous, global, distributed money-transfer system outside of any national control is what makes computer ransomware possible.

This problem is made worse by the nature of the criminals. They operate out of countries that don’t have the resources to prosecute cybercriminals, like Nigeria; or protect cybercriminals that only attack outside their borders, like Russia; or use the proceeds as a revenue stream, like North Korea. So even when a particular group is identified, it is often impossible to prosecute. Which leaves the only tools left a combination of successfully blocking attacks (another hard problem) and eliminating the payment channels that the criminals need to turn their attacks into profit.

In this light, banning cryptocurrencies like bitcoin is an obvious solution. But while the solution is conceptually simple, it’s also impossible because — despite its overwhelming problems — there are so many legitimate interests using cryptocurrencies, albeit largely for speculation and not for legal payments.

We suggest an easier alternative: merely disrupt the cryptocurrency markets. Making them harder to use will have the effect of making them less useful as a ransomware payment vehicle, and not just because victims will have more difficulty figuring out how to pay. The reason requires understanding how criminals collect their profits.

Paying a ransom starts with a victim turning a large sum of money into bitcoin and then transferring it to a criminal controlled “account.” Bitcoin is, in itself, useless to the criminal. You can’t actually buy much with bitcoin. It’s more like casino chips, only usable in a single establishment for a single purpose. (Yes, there are companies that “accept” bitcoin, but that is mostly a PR stunt.) A criminal needs to convert the bitcoin into some national currency that he can actually save, spend, invest, or whatever.

This is where it gets interesting. Conceptually, bitcoin combines numbered Swiss bank accounts with public transactions and balances. Anyone can create as many anonymous accounts as they want, but every transaction is posted publicly for the entire world to see. This creates some important challenges for these criminals.

First, the criminal needs to take efforts to conceal the bitcoin. In the old days, criminals used “https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/individual-arrested-and-charged-operating-notorious-darknet-cryptocurrency-mixer”>mixing services“: third parties that would accept bitcoin into one account and then return it (minus a fee) from an unconnected set of accounts. Modern bitcoin tracing tools make this money laundering trick ineffective. Instead, the modern criminal does something called “chain swaps.”

In a chain swap, the criminal transfers the bitcoin to a shady offshore cryptocurrency exchange. These exchanges are notoriously weak about enforcing money laundering laws and — for the most part — don’t have access to the banking system. Once on this alternate exchange, the criminal sells his bitcoin and buys some other cryptocurrency like Ethereum, Dogecoin, Tether, Monero, or one of dozens of others. They then transfer it to another shady offshore exchange and transfer it back into bitcoin. Voila­ — they now have “clean” bitcoin.

Second, the criminal needs to convert that bitcoin into spendable money. They take their newly cleaned bitcoin and transfer it to yet another exchange, one connected to the banking system. Or perhaps they hire someone else to do this step. These exchanges conduct greater oversight of their customers, but the criminal can use a network of bogus accounts, recruit a bunch of users to act as mules, or simply bribe an employee at the exchange to evade whatever laws there. The end result of this activity is to turn the bitcoin into dollars, euros, or some other easily usable currency.

Both of these steps — the chain swapping and currency conversion — require a large amount of normal activity to keep from standing out. That is, they will be easy for law enforcement to identify unless they are hiding among lots of regular, noncriminal transactions. If speculators stopped buying and selling cryptocurrencies and the market shrunk drastically, these criminal activities would no longer be easy to conceal: there’s simply too much money involved.

This is why disruption will work. It doesn’t require an outright ban to stop these criminals from using bitcoin — just enough sand in the gears in the cryptocurrency space to reduce its size and scope.

How do we do this?

The first mechanism observes that the criminal’s flows have a unique pattern. The overall cryptocurrency space is “zero sum”: Every dollar made was provided by someone else. And the primary legal use of cryptocurrencies involves speculation: people effectively betting on a currency’s future value. So the background speculators are mostly balanced: One bitcoin in results in one bitcoin out. There are exceptions involving offshore exchanges and speculation among different cryptocurrencies, but they’re marginal, and only involve turning one bitcoin into a little more (if a speculator is lucky) or a little less (if unlucky).

Criminals and their victims act differently. Victims are net buyers, turning millions of dollars into bitcoin and never going the other way. Criminals are net sellers, only turning bitcoin into currency. The only other net sellers are the cryptocurrency miners, and they are easy to identify.

Any banked exchange that cares about enforcing money laundering laws must consider all significant net sellers of cryptocurrencies as potential criminals and report them to both in-country and US financial authorities. Any exchange that doesn’t should have its banking forcefully cut.

The US Treasury can ensure these exchanges are cut out of the banking system. By designating a rogue but banked exchange, the Treasury says that it is illegal not only to do business with the exchange but for US banks to do business with the exchange’s bank. As a consequence, the rogue exchange would quickly find its banking options eliminated.

A second mechanism involves the IRS. In 2019, it started demanding information from cryptocurrency exchanges and added a check box to the 1040 form that requires disclosure from those who both buy and sell cryptocurrencies. And while this is intended to target tax evasion, it has the side consequence of disrupting those offshore exchanges criminals rely to launder their bitcoin. Speculation on cryptocurrency is far less attractive since the speculators have to pay taxes but most exchanges don’t help out by filing 1099-Bs that make it easy to calculate the taxes owed.

A third mechanism involves targeting the cryptocurrency Tether. While most cryptocurrencies have values that fluctuate with demand, Tether is a “stablecoin” that is supposedly backed one-to-one with dollars. Of course, it probably isn’t, as its claim to be the seventh largest holder of commercial paper (short-term loans to major businesses) is blatantly untrue. Instead, they appear part of a cycle where new Tether is issued, used to buy cryptocurrencies, and the resulting cryptocurrencies now “back” Tether and drive up the price.

This behavior is clearly that of a “wildcat bank,” an 1800s fraudulent banking style that has long been illegal. Tether also bears a striking similarity to Liberty Reserve, an online currency that the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted for money laundering in 2013. Shutting down Tether would have the side effect of eliminating the value proposition for the exchanges that support chain swapping, since these exchanges need a “stable” value for the speculators to trade against.

There are further possibilities. One involves treating the cryptocurrency miners, those who validate all transactions and add them to the public record, as money transmitters — and subject to the regulations around that business. Another option involves requiring cryptocurrency exchanges to actually deliver the cryptocurrencies into customer-controlled wallets.

Effectively, all cryptocurrency exchanges avoid transferring cryptocurrencies between customers. Instead, they simply record entries in a central database. This makes sense because actual “on chain” transactions can be particularly expensive for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or Ethereum. If all speculators needed to actually receive their bitcoins, it would make clear that its value proposition as a currency simply doesn’t exist, as the already strained system would grind to a halt.

And, of course, law enforcement can already target criminals’ bitcoin directly. An example of this just occurred, when US law enforcement was able to seize 85% of the $4 million ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to the criminal organization DarkSide. That by the time the seizure occurred the bitcoin lost more than 30% of its value is just one more reminder of how unworkable bitcoin is as a “store of value.”

There is no single silver bullet to disrupt either cryptocurrencies or ransomware. But enough little disruptions, a “death of a thousand cuts” through new and existing regulation, should make bitcoin no longer usable for ransomware. And if there’s no safe way for a criminal to collect the ransom, their business model becomes no longer viable.

This essay was written with Nicholas Weaver, and previously appeared on Slate.com.

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Identifying the Person Behind Bitcoin Fog

The person behind the Bitcoin Fog was identified and arrested. Bitcoin Fog was an anonymization service: for a fee, it mixed a bunch of people’s bitcoins up so that it was hard to figure out where any individual coins came from. It ran for ten years.

Identifying the person behind Bitcoin Fog serves as an illustrative example of how hard it is to be anonymous online in the face of a competent police investigation:

Most remarkable, however, is the IRS’s account of tracking down Sterlingov using the very same sort of blockchain analysis that his own service was meant to defeat. The complaint outlines how Sterlingov allegedly paid for the server hosting of Bitcoin Fog at one point in 2011 using the now-defunct digital currency Liberty Reserve. It goes on to show the blockchain evidence that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that Liberty Reserve currency with bitcoins: He first exchanged euros for the bitcoins on the early cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox, then moved those bitcoins through several subsequent addresses, and finally traded them on another currency exchange for the Liberty Reserve funds he’d use to set up Bitcoin Fog’s domain.

Based on tracing those financial transactions, the IRS says, it then identified Mt. Gox accounts that used Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, and even a Google account that included a Russian-language document on its Google Drive offering instructions for how to obscure Bitcoin payments. That document described exactly the steps Sterlingov allegedly took to buy the Liberty Reserve funds he’d used.

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Illegal Content and the Blockchain

Security researchers have recently discovered a botnet with a novel defense against takedowns. Normally, authorities can disable a botnet by taking over its command-and-control server. With nowhere to go for instructions, the botnet is rendered useless. But over the years, botnet designers have come up with ways to make this counterattack harder. Now the content-delivery network Akamai has reported on a new method: a botnet that uses the Bitcoin blockchain ledger. Since the blockchain is globally accessible and hard to take down, the botnet’s operators appear to be safe.

It’s best to avoid explaining the mathematics of Bitcoin’s blockchain, but to understand the colossal implications here, you need to understand one concept. Blockchains are a type of “distributed ledger”: a record of all transactions since the beginning, and everyone using the blockchain needs to have access to — and reference — a copy of it. What if someone puts illegal material in the blockchain? Either everyone has a copy of it, or the blockchain’s security fails.

To be fair, not absolutely everyone who uses a blockchain holds a copy of the entire ledger. Many who buy cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum don’t bother using the ledger to verify their purchase. Many don’t actually hold the currency outright, and instead trust an exchange to do the transactions and hold the coins. But people need to continually verify the blockchain’s history on the ledger for the system to be secure. If they stopped, then it would be trivial to forge coins. That’s how the system works.

Some years ago, people started noticing all sorts of things embedded in the Bitcoin blockchain. There are digital images, including one of Nelson Mandela. There’s the Bitcoin logo, and the original paper describing Bitcoin by its alleged founder, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. There are advertisements, and several prayers. There’s even illegal pornography and leaked classified documents. All of these were put in by anonymous Bitcoin users. But none of this, so far, appears to seriously threaten those in power in governments and corporations. Once someone adds something to the Bitcoin ledger, it becomes sacrosanct. Removing something requires a fork of the blockchain, in which Bitcoin fragments into multiple parallel cryptocurrencies (and associated blockchains). Forks happen, rarely, but never yet because of legal coercion. And repeated forking would destroy Bitcoin’s stature as a stable(ish) currency.

The botnet’s designers are using this idea to create an unblockable means of coordination, but the implications are much greater. Imagine someone using this idea to evade government censorship. Most Bitcoin mining happens in China. What if someone added a bunch of Chinese-censored Falun Gong texts to the blockchain?<

What if someone added a type of political speech that Singapore routinely censors? Or cartoons that Disney holds the copyright to?

In Bitcoin’s and most other public blockchains there are no central, trusted authorities. Anyone in the world can perform transactions or become a miner. Everyone is equal to the extent that they have the hardware and electricity to perform cryptographic computations.

This openness is also a vulnerability, one that opens the door to asymmetric threats and small-time malicious actors. Anyone can put information in the one and only Bitcoin blockchain. Again, that’s how the system works.

Over the last three decades, the world has witnessed the power of open networks: blockchains, social media, the very web itself. What makes them so powerful is that their value is related not just to the number of users, but the number of potential links between users. This is Metcalfe’s law — value in a network is quadratic, not linear, in the number of users — and every open network since has followed its prophecy.

As Bitcoin has grown, its monetary value has skyrocketed, even if its uses remain unclear. With no barrier to entry, the blockchain space has been a Wild West of innovation and lawlessness. But today, many prominent advocates suggest Bitcoin should become a global, universal currency. In this context, asymmetric threats like embedded illegal data become a major challenge.

The philosophy behind Bitcoin traces to the earliest days of the open internet. Articulated in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, it was and is the ethos of tech startups: Code is more trustworthy than institutions. Information is meant to be free, and nobody has the right — and should not have the ability — to control it.

But information must reside somewhere. Code is written by and for people, stored on computers located within countries, and embedded within the institutions and societies we have created. To trust information is to trust its chain of custody and the social context it comes from. Neither code nor information is value-neutral, nor ever free of human context.

Today, Barlow’s vision is a mere shadow; every society controls the information its people can access. Some of this control is through overt censorship, as China controls information about Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and the Uyghurs. Some of this is through civil laws designed by the powerful for their benefit, as with Disney and US copyright law, or UK libel law.

Bitcoin and blockchains like it are on a collision course with these laws. What happens when the interests of the powerful, with the law on their side, are pitted against an open blockchain? Let’s imagine how our various scenarios might play out.

China first: In response to Falun Gong texts in the blockchain, the People’s Republic decrees that any miners processing blocks with banned content will be taken offline — their IPs will be blacklisted. This causes a hard fork of the blockchain at the point just before the banned content. China might do this under the guise of a “patriotic” messaging campaign, publicly stating that it’s merely maintaining financial sovereignty from Western banks. Then it uses paid influencers and moderators on social media to pump the China Bitcoin fork, through both partisan comments and transactions. Two distinct forks would soon emerge, one behind China’s Great Firewall and one outside. Other countries with similar governmental and media ecosystems — Russia, Singapore, Myanmar — might consider following suit, creating multiple national Bitcoin forks. These would operate independently, under mandates to censor unacceptable transactions from then on.

Disney’s approach would play out differently. Imagine the company announces it will sue any ISP that hosts copyrighted content, starting with networks hosting the biggest miners. (Disney has sued to enforce its intellectual property rights in China before.) After some legal pressure, the networks cut the miners off. The miners reestablish themselves on another network, but Disney keeps the pressure on. Eventually miners get pushed further and further off of mainstream network providers, and resort to tunneling their traffic through an anonymity service like Tor. That causes a major slowdown in the already slow (because of the mathematics) Bitcoin network. Disney might issue takedown requests for Tor exit nodes, causing the network to slow to a crawl. It could persist like this for a long time without a fork. Or the slowdown could cause people to jump ship, either by forking Bitcoin or switching to another cryptocurrency without the copyrighted content.

And then there’s illegal pornographic content and leaked classified data. These have been on the Bitcoin blockchain for over five years, and nothing has been done about it. Just like the botnet example, it may be that these do not threaten existing power structures enough to warrant takedowns. This could easily change if Bitcoin becomes a popular way to share child sexual abuse material. Simply having these illegal images on your hard drive is a felony, which could have significant repercussions for anyone involved in Bitcoin.

Whichever scenario plays out, this may be the Achilles heel of Bitcoin as a global currency.

If an open network such as a blockchain were threatened by a powerful organization — China’s censors, Disney’s lawyers, or the FBI trying to take down a more dangerous botnet — it could fragment into multiple networks. That’s not just a nuisance, but an existential risk to Bitcoin.

Suppose Bitcoin were fragmented into 10 smaller blockchains, perhaps by geography: one in China, another in the US, and so on. These fragments might retain their original users, and by ordinary logic, nothing would have changed. But Metcalfe’s law implies that the overall value of these blockchain fragments combined would be a mere tenth of the original. That is because the value of an open network relates to how many others you can communicate with — and, in a blockchain, transact with. Since the security of bitcoin currency is achieved through expensive computations, fragmented blockchains are also easier to attack in a conventional manner — through a 51 percent attack — by an organized attacker. This is especially the case if the smaller blockchains all use the same hash function, as they would here.

Traditional currencies are generally not vulnerable to these sorts of asymmetric threats. There are no viable small-scale attacks against the US dollar, or almost any other fiat currency. The institutions and beliefs that give money its value are deep-seated, despite instances of currency hyperinflation.

The only notable attacks against fiat currencies are in the form of counterfeiting. Even in the past, when counterfeit bills were common, attacks could be thwarted. Counterfeiters require specialized equipment and are vulnerable to law enforcement discovery and arrest. Furthermore, most money today — even if it’s nominally in a fiat currency — doesn’t exist in paper form.

Bitcoin attracted a following for its openness and immunity from government control. Its goal is to create a world that replaces cultural power with cryptographic power: verification in code, not trust in people. But there is no such world. And today, that feature is a vulnerability. We really don’t know what will happen when the human systems of trust come into conflict with the trustless verification that make blockchain currencies unique. Just last week we saw this exact attack on smaller blockchains — not Bitcoin yet. We are watching a public socio-technical experiment in the making, and we will witness its success or failure in the not-too-distant future.

This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared on Wired.com.

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On the Twitter Hack

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam — stealing bitcoin — but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

Whether the hackers had access to Twitter direct messages is not known. These DMs are not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are unencrypted inside Twitter’s network and could have been available to the hackers. Those messages — between world leaders, industry CEOs, reporters and their sources, heath organizations — are much more valuable than bitcoin. (If I were a national-intelligence agency, I might even use a bitcoin scam to mask my real intelligence-gathering purpose.) Back in 2018, Twitter said it was exploring encrypting those messages, but it hasn’t yet.

Internet communications platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.

In the Twitter case this week, the hacker’s tactics weren’t particularly sophisticated. We will almost certainly learn about security lapses at Twitter that enabled the hack, possibly including a SIM-swapping attack that targeted an employee’s cellular service provider, or maybe even a bribed insider. The FBI is investigating.

This kind of attack is known as a “class break.” Class breaks are endemic to computerized systems, and they’re not something that we as users can defend against with better personal security. It didn’t matter whether individual accounts had a complicated and hard-to-remember password, or two-factor authentication. It didn’t matter whether the accounts were normally accessed via a Mac or a PC. There was literally nothing any user could do to protect against it.

Class breaks are security vulnerabilities that break not just one system, but an entire class of systems. They might exploit a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system’s software. Or a vulnerability in internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allows an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet. Or a single vulnerability in the Twitter network that allows an attacker to take over every account.

For Twitter users, this attack was a double whammy. Many people rely on Twitter’s authentication systems to know that someone who purports to be a certain celebrity, politician, or journalist is really that person. When those accounts were hijacked, trust in that system took a beating. And then, after the attack was discovered and Twitter temporarily shut down all verified accounts, the public lost a vital source of information.

There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that’s not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.

The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people’s accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.

The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it’s because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn’t even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple’s iCloud, or anywhere? You don’t. No one except those companies do. Yet they’re crucial to the country’s national security. And they’re the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.

For example, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account wasn’t hacked as Joe Biden’s was, because that account has “special protections,” the details of which we don’t know. We also don’t know what other world leaders have those protections, or the decision process surrounding who gets them. Are they manual? Can they scale? Can all verified accounts have them? Your guess is as good as mine.

In addition to security measures, the other solution is to break up the tech monopolies. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have so much power because they are so large, and they face no real competition. This is a national-security risk as well as a personal-security risk. Were there 100 different Twitter-like companies, and enough compatibility so that all their feeds could merge into one interface, this attack wouldn’t have been such a big deal. More important, the risk of a similar but more politically targeted attack wouldn’t be so great. If there were competition, different platforms would offer different security options, as well as different posting rules, different authentication guidelines — different everything. Competition is how our economy works; it’s how we spur innovation. Monopolies have more power to do what they want in the quest for profits, even if it harms people along the way.

This wasn’t Twitter’s first security problem involving trusted insiders. In 2017, on his last day of work, an employee shut down President Donald Trump’s account. In 2019, two people were charged with spying for the Saudi government while they were Twitter employees.

Maybe this hack will serve as a wake-up call. But if past incidents involving Twitter and other companies are any indication, it won’t. Underspending on security, and letting society pay the eventual price, is far more profitable. I don’t blame the tech companies. Their corporate mandate is to make as much money as is legally possible. Fixing this requires changes in the law, not changes in the hearts of the company’s leaders.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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Dark Web Site Taken Down without Breaking Encryption

The US Department of Justice unraveled a dark web child-porn website, leading to the arrest of 337 people in at least 18 countries. This was all accomplished not through any backdoors in communications systems, but by analyzing the bitcoin transactions and following the money:

Welcome to Video made money by charging fees in bitcoin, and gave each user a unique bitcoin wallet address when they created an account. Son operated the site as a Tor hidden service, a dark web site with a special address that helps mask the identity of the site’s host and its location. But Son and others made mistakes that allowed law enforcement to track them. For example, according to the indictment, very basic assessments of the Welcome to Video website revealed two unconcealed IP addresses managed by a South Korean internet service provider and assigned to an account that provided service to Son’s home address. When agents searched Son’s residence, they found the server running Welcome to Video.

To “follow the money,” as officials put it in Wednesday’s press conference, law enforcement agents sent fairly small amounts of bitcoin­ — roughly equivalent at the time to $125 to $290­ — to the bitcoin wallets Welcome to Video listed for payments. Since the bitcoin blockchain leaves all transactions visible and verifiable, they could observe the currency in these wallets being transferred to another wallet. Law enforcement learned from a bitcoin exchange that the second wallet was registered to Son with his personal phone number and one of his personal email addresses.

Remember this the next time some law enforcement official tells us that they’re powerless to investigate crime without breaking cryptography for everyone.

More news articles. The indictment is here. Some of it is pretty horrifying to read.

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Blockchain and Trust

In his 2008 white paper that first proposed bitcoin, the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto concluded with: “We have proposed a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust.” He was referring to blockchain, the system behind bitcoin cryptocurrency. The circumvention of trust is a great promise, but it’s just not true. Yes, bitcoin eliminates certain trusted intermediaries that are inherent in other payment systems like credit cards. But you still have to trust bitcoin — and everything about it.

Much has been written about blockchains and how they displace, reshape, or eliminate trust. But when you analyze both blockchain and trust, you quickly realize that there is much more hype than value. Blockchain solutions are often much worse than what they replace.

First, a caveat. By blockchain, I mean something very specific: the data structures and protocols that make up a public blockchain. These have three essential elements. The first is a distributed (as in multiple copies) but centralized (as in there’s only one) ledger, which is a way of recording what happened and in what order. This ledger is public, meaning that anyone can read it, and immutable, meaning that no one can change what happened in the past.

The second element is the consensus algorithm, which is a way to ensure all the copies of the ledger are the same. This is generally called mining; a critical part of the system is that anyone can participate. It is also distributed, meaning that you don’t have to trust any particular node in the consensus network. It can also be extremely expensive, both in data storage and in the energy required to maintain it. Bitcoin has the most expensive consensus algorithm the world has ever seen, by far.

Finally, the third element is the currency. This is some sort of digital token that has value and is publicly traded. Currency is a necessary element of a blockchain to align the incentives of everyone involved. Transactions involving these tokens are stored on the ledger.

Private blockchains are completely uninteresting. (By this, I mean systems that use the blockchain data structure but don’t have the above three elements.) In general, they have some external limitation on who can interact with the blockchain and its features. These are not anything new; they’re distributed append-only data structures with a list of individuals authorized to add to it. Consensus protocols have been studied in distributed systems for more than 60 years. Append-only data structures have been similarly well covered. They’re blockchains in name only, and — as far as I can tell — the only reason to operate one is to ride on the blockchain hype.

All three elements of a public blockchain fit together as a single network that offers new security properties. The question is: Is it actually good for anything? It’s all a matter of trust.

Trust is essential to society. As a species, humans are wired to trust one another. Society can’t function without trust, and the fact that we mostly don’t even think about it is a measure of how well trust works.

The word “trust” is loaded with many meanings. There’s personal and intimate trust. When we say we trust a friend, we mean that we trust their intentions and know that those intentions will inform their actions. There’s also the less intimate, less personal trust — we might not know someone personally, or know their motivations, but we can trust their future actions. Blockchain enables this sort of trust: We don’t know any bitcoin miners, for example, but we trust that they will follow the mining protocol and make the whole system work.

Most blockchain enthusiasts have a unnaturally narrow definition of trust. They’re fond of catchphrases like “in code we trust,” “in math we trust,” and “in crypto we trust.” This is trust as verification. But verification isn’t the same as trust.

In 2012, I wrote a book about trust and security, Liars and Outliers. In it, I listed four very general systems our species uses to incentivize trustworthy behavior. The first two are morals and reputation. The problem is that they scale only to a certain population size. Primitive systems were good enough for small communities, but larger communities required delegation, and more formalism.

The third is institutions. Institutions have rules and laws that induce people to behave according to the group norm, imposing sanctions on those who do not. In a sense, laws formalize reputation. Finally, the fourth is security systems. These are the wide varieties of security technologies we employ: door locks and tall fences, alarm systems and guards, forensics and audit systems, and so on.

These four elements work together to enable trust. Take banking, for example. Financial institutions, merchants, and individuals are all concerned with their reputations, which prevents theft and fraud. The laws and regulations surrounding every aspect of banking keep everyone in line, including backstops that limit risks in the case of fraud. And there are lots of security systems in place, from anti-counterfeiting technologies to internet-security technologies.

In his 2018 book, Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust, Kevin Werbach outlines four different “trust architectures.” The first is peer-to-peer trust. This basically corresponds to my morals and reputational systems: pairs of people who come to trust each other. His second is leviathan trust, which corresponds to institutional trust. You can see this working in our system of contracts, which allows parties that don’t trust each other to enter into an agreement because they both trust that a government system will help resolve disputes. His third is intermediary trust. A good example is the credit card system, which allows untrusting buyers and sellers to engage in commerce. His fourth trust architecture is distributed trust. This is emergent trust in the particular security system that is blockchain.

What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.

When that trust turns out to be misplaced, there is no recourse. If your bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If your bitcoin wallet gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If you forget your login credentials, you lose all of your money. If there’s a bug in the code of your smart contract, you lose all of your money. If someone successfully hacks the blockchain security, you lose all of your money. In many ways, trusting technology is harder than trusting people. Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don’t have the expertise to audit?

Blockchain enthusiasts point to more traditional forms of trust — bank processing fees, for example — as expensive. But blockchain trust is also costly; the cost is just hidden. For bitcoin, that’s the cost of the additional bitcoin mined, the transaction fees, and the enormous environmental waste.

Blockchain doesn’t eliminate the need to trust human institutions. There will always be a big gap that can’t be addressed by technology alone. People still need to be in charge, and there is always a need for governance outside the system. This is obvious in the ongoing debate about changing the bitcoin block size, or in fixing the DAO attack against Ethereum. There’s always a need to override the rules, and there’s always a need for the ability to make permanent rules changes. As long as hard forks are a possibility — that’s when the people in charge of a blockchain step outside the system to change it — people will need to be in charge.

Any blockchain system will have to coexist with other, more conventional systems. Modern banking, for example, is designed to be reversible. Bitcoin is not. That makes it hard to make the two compatible, and the result is often an insecurity. Steve Wozniak was scammed out of $70K in bitcoin because he forgot this.

Blockchain technology is often centralized. Bitcoin might theoretically be based on distributed trust, but in practice, that’s just not true. Just about everyone using bitcoin has to trust one of the few available wallets and use one of the few available exchanges. People have to trust the software and the operating systems and the computers everything is running on. And we’ve seen attacks against wallets and exchanges. We’ve seen Trojans and phishing and password guessing. Criminals have even used flaws in the system that people use to repair their cell phones to steal bitcoin.

Moreover, in any distributed trust system, there are backdoor methods for centralization to creep back in. With bitcoin, there are only a few miners of consequence. There’s one company that provides most of the mining hardware. There are only a few dominant exchanges. To the extent that most people interact with bitcoin, it is through these centralized systems. This also allows for attacks against blockchain-based systems.

These issues are not bugs in current blockchain applications, they’re inherent in how blockchain works. Any evaluation of the security of the system has to take the whole socio-technical system into account. Too many blockchain enthusiasts focus on the technology and ignore the rest.

To the extent that people don’t use bitcoin, it’s because they don’t trust bitcoin. That has nothing to do with the cryptography or the protocols. In fact, a system where you can lose your life savings if you forget your key or download a piece of malware is not particularly trustworthy. No amount of explaining how SHA-256 works to prevent double-spending will fix that.

Similarly, to the extent that people do use blockchains, it is because they trust them. People either own bitcoin or not based on reputation; that’s true even for speculators who own bitcoin simply because they think it will make them rich quickly. People choose a wallet for their cryptocurrency, and an exchange for their transactions, based on reputation. We even evaluate and trust the cryptography that underpins blockchains based on the algorithms’ reputation.

To see how this can fail, look at the various supply-chain security systems that are using blockchain. A blockchain isn’t a necessary feature of any of them. The reasons they’re successful is that everyone has a single software platform to enter their data in. Even though the blockchain systems are built on distributed trust, people don’t necessarily accept that. For example, some companies don’t trust the IBM/Maersk system because it’s not their blockchain.

Irrational? Maybe, but that’s how trust works. It can’t be replaced by algorithms and protocols. It’s much more social than that.

Still, the idea that blockchains can somehow eliminate the need for trust persists. Recently, I received an email from a company that implemented secure messaging using blockchain. It said, in part: “Using the blockchain, as we have done, has eliminated the need for Trust.” This sentiment suggests the writer misunderstands both what blockchain does and how trust works.

Do you need a public blockchain? The answer is almost certainly no. A blockchain probably doesn’t solve the security problems you think it solves. The security problems it solves are probably not the ones you have. (Manipulating audit data is probably not your major security risk.) A false trust in blockchain can itself be a security risk. The inefficiencies, especially in scaling, are probably not worth it. I have looked at many blockchain applications, and all of them could achieve the same security properties without using a blockchain­ — of course, then they wouldn’t have the cool name.

Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.

To answer the question of whether the blockchain is needed, ask yourself: Does the blockchain change the system of trust in any meaningful way, or just shift it around? Does it just try to replace trust with verification? Does it strengthen existing trust relationships, or try to go against them? How can trust be abused in the new system, and is this better or worse than the potential abuses in the old system? And lastly: What would your system look like if you didn’t use blockchain at all?

If you ask yourself those questions, it’s likely you’ll choose solutions that don’t use public blockchain. And that’ll be a good thing — especially when the hype dissipates.

This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (2/11): Two commentaries on my essay.

I have wanted to write this essay for over a year. The impetus to finally do it came from an invite to speak at the Hyperledger Global Forum in December. This essay is a version of the talk I wrote for that event, made more accessible to a general audience.

It seems to be the season for blockchain takedowns. James Waldo has an excellent essay in Queue. And Nicholas Weaver gave a talk at the Enigma Conference, summarized here. It’s a shortened version of this talk.

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New Attack Against Electrum Bitcoin Wallets

This is clever:

How the attack works:

  • Attacker added tens of malicious servers to the Electrum wallet network.
  • Users of legitimate Electrum wallets initiate a Bitcoin transaction.
  • If the transaction reaches one of the malicious servers, these servers reply with an error message that urges users to download a wallet app update from a malicious website (GitHub repo).
  • User clicks the link and downloads the malicious update.
  • When the user opens the malicious Electrum wallet, the app asks the user for a two-factor authentication (2FA) code. This is a red flag, as these 2FA codes are only requested before sending funds, and not at wallet startup.
  • The malicious Electrum wallet uses the 2FA code to steal the user’s funds and transfer them to the attacker’s Bitcoin addresses.

The problem here is that Electrum servers are allowed to trigger popups with custom text inside users’ wallets.

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Nicholas Weaver on Cryptocurrencies

This is well-worth reading (non-paywalled version). Here’s the opening:

Cryptocurrencies, although a seemingly interesting idea, are simply not fit for purpose. They do not work as currencies, they are grossly inefficient, and they are not meaningfully distributed in terms of trust. Risks involving cryptocurrencies occur in four major areas: technical risks to participants, economic risks to participants, systemic risks to the cryptocurrency ecosystem, and societal risks.

I haven’t written much about cryptocurrencies, but I share Weaver’s skepticism.

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