Entries Tagged "bitcoin"

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On the Dangers of Cryptocurrencies and the Uselessness of Blockchain

Earlier this month, I and others wrote a letter to Congress, basically saying that cryptocurrencies are an complete and total disaster, and urging them to regulate the space. Nothing in that letter is out of the ordinary, and is in line with what I wrote about blockchain in 2019. In response, Matthew Green has written—not really a rebuttal—but a “a general response to some of the more common spurious objections…people make to public blockchain systems.” In it, he makes several broad points:

  1. Yes, current proof-of-work blockchains like bitcoin are terrible for the environment. But there are other modes like proof-of-stake that are not.
  2. Yes, a blockchain is an immutable ledger making it impossible to undo specific transactions. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be some governance system on top of the blockchain that enables reversals.
  3. Yes, bitcoin doesn’t scale and the fees are too high. But that’s nothing inherent in blockchain technology—that’s just a bunch of bad design choices bitcoin made.
  4. Blockchain systems can have a little or a lot of privacy, depending on how they are designed and implemented.

There’s nothing on that list that I disagree with. (We can argue about whether proof-of-stake is actually an improvement. I am skeptical of systems that enshrine a “they who have the gold make the rules” system of governance. And to the extent any of those scaling solutions work, they undo the decentralization blockchain claims to have.) But I also think that these defenses largely miss the point. To me, the problem isn’t that blockchain systems can be made slightly less awful than they are today. The problem is that they don’t do anything their proponents claim they do. In some very important ways, they’re not secure. They doesn’t replace trust with code; in fact, in many ways they are far less trustworthy than non-blockchain systems. They’re not decentralized, and their inevitable centralization is harmful because it’s largely emergent and ill-defined. They still have trusted intermediaries, often with more power and less oversight than non-blockchain systems. They still require governance. They still require regulation. (These things are what I wrote about here.) The problem with blockchain is that it’s not an improvement to any system—and often makes things worse.

In our letter, we write: “By its very design, blockchain technology is poorly suited for just about every purpose currently touted as a present or potential source of public benefit. From its inception, this technology has been a solution in search of a problem and has now latched onto concepts such as financial inclusion and data transparency to justify its existence, despite far better solutions to these issues already in use. Despite more than thirteen years of development, it has severe limitations and design flaws that preclude almost all applications that deal with public customer data and regulated financial transactions and are not an improvement on existing non-blockchain solutions.”

Green responds: “‘Public blockchain’ technology enables many stupid things: today’s cryptocurrency schemes can be venal, corrupt, overpromised. But the core technology is absolutely not useless. In fact, I think there are some pretty exciting things happening in the field, even if most of them are further away from reality than their boosters would admit.” I have yet to see one. More specifically, I can’t find a blockchain application whose value has anything to do with the blockchain part, that wouldn’t be made safer, more secure, more reliable, and just plain better by removing the blockchain part. I postulate that no one has ever said “Here is a problem that I have. Oh look, blockchain is a good solution.” In every case, the order has been: “I have a blockchain. Oh look, there is a problem I can apply it to.” And in no cases does it actually help.

Someone, please show me an application where blockchain is essential. That is, a problem that could not have been solved without blockchain that can now be solved with it. (And “ransomware couldn’t exist because criminals are blocked from using the conventional financial networks, and cash payments aren’t feasible” does not count.)

For example, Green complains that “credit card merchant fees are similar, or have actually risen in the United States since the 1990s.” This is true, but has little to do with technological inefficiencies or existing trust relationships in the industry. It’s because pretty much everyone who can and is paying attention gets 1% back on their purchases: in cash, frequent flier miles, or other affinity points. Green is right about how unfair this is. It’s a regressive subsidy, “since these fees are baked into the cost of most retail goods and thus fall heavily on the working poor (who pay them even if they use cash).” But that has nothing to do with the lack of blockchain, and solving it isn’t helped by adding a blockchain. It’s a regulatory problem; with a few exceptions, credit card companies have successfully pressured merchants into charging the same prices, whether someone pays in cash or with a credit card. Peer-to-peer payment systems like PayPal, Venmo, MPesa, and AliPay all get around those high transaction fees, and none of them use blockchain.

This is my basic argument: blockchain does nothing to solve any existing problem with financial (or other) systems. Those problems are inherently economic and political, and have nothing to do with technology. And, more importantly, technology can’t solve economic and political problems. Which is good, because adding blockchain causes a whole slew of new problems and makes all of these systems much, much worse.

Green writes: “I have no problem with the idea of legislators (intelligently) passing laws to regulate cryptocurrency. Indeed, given the level of insanity and the number of outright scams that are happening in this area, it’s pretty obvious that our current regulatory framework is not up to the task.” But when you remove the insanity and the scams, what’s left?

EDITED TO ADD: Nicholas Weaver is also adamant about this. David Rosenthal is good, too.

Posted on June 24, 2022 at 6:13 AMView Comments

De-anonymizing Bitcoin

Andy Greenberg wrote a long article—an excerpt from his new book—on how law enforcement de-anonymized bitcoin transactions to take down a global child porn ring.

Within a few years of Bitcoin’s arrival, academic security researchers—and then companies like Chainalysis—began to tear gaping holes in the masks separating Bitcoin users’ addresses and their real-world identities. They could follow bitcoins on the blockchain as they moved from address to address until they reached one that could be tied to a known identity. In some cases, an investigator could learn someone’s Bitcoin addresses by transacting with them, the way an undercover narcotics agent might conduct a buy-and-bust. In other cases, they could trace a target’s coins to an account at a cryptocurrency exchange where financial regulations required users to prove their identity. A quick subpoena to the exchange from one of Chainalysis’ customers in law enforcement was then enough to strip away any illusion of Bitcoin’s anonymity.

Chainalysis had combined these techniques for de-anonymizing Bitcoin users with methods that allowed it to “cluster” addresses, showing that anywhere from dozens to millions of addresses sometimes belonged to a single person or organization. When coins from two or more addresses were spent in a single transaction, for instance, it revealed that whoever created that “multi-input” transaction must have control of both spender addresses, allowing Chainalysis to lump them into a single identity. In other cases, Chainalysis and its users could follow a “peel chain”—a process analogous to tracking a single wad of cash as a user repeatedly pulled it out, peeled off a few bills, and put it back in a different pocket. In those peel chains, bitcoins would be moved out of one address as a fraction was paid to a recipient and then the remainder returned to the spender at a “change” address. Distinguishing those change addresses could allow an investigator to follow a sum of money as it hopped from one address to the next, charting its path through the noise of Bitcoin’s blockchain.

Thanks to tricks like these, Bitcoin had turned out to be practically the opposite of untraceable: a kind of honeypot for crypto criminals that had, for years, dutifully and unerasably recorded evidence of their dirty deals. By 2017, agencies like the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the IRS’s Criminal Investigation division (or IRS-CI) had traced Bitcoin transactions to carry out one investigative coup after another, very often with the help of Chainalysis.

Posted on April 11, 2022 at 6:04 AMView Comments

Stolen Bitcoins Returned

The US has returned $154 million in bitcoins stolen by a Sony employee.

However, on December 1, following an investigation in collaboration with Japanese law enforcement authorities, the FBI seized the 3879.16242937 BTC in Ishii’s wallet after obtaining the private key, which made it possible to transfer all the bitcoins to the FBI’s bitcoin wallet.

Posted on December 22, 2021 at 10:20 AMView Comments

Wire Fraud Scam Upgraded with Bitcoin

The FBI has issued a bulletin describing a bitcoin variant of a wire fraud scam:

As the agency describes it, the scammer will contact their victim and somehow convince them that they need to send money, either with promises of love, further riches, or by impersonating an actual institution like a bank or utility company. After the mark is convinced, the scammer will have them get cash (sometimes out of investment or retirement accounts), and head to an ATM that sells cryptocurrencies and supports reading QR codes. Once the victim’s there, they’ll scan a QR code that the scammer sent them, which will tell the machine to send any crypto purchased to the scammer’s address. Just like that, the victim loses their money, and the scammer has successfully exploited them.


The “upgrade” (as it were) for scammers with the crypto ATM method is two-fold: it can be less friction than sending a wire transfer, and at the end the scammer has cryptocurrency instead of fiat. With wire transfers, you have to fill out a form, and you may give that form to an actual person (who could potentially vibe check you). Using the ATM method, there’s less time to reflect on the fact that you’re about to send money to a stranger. And, if you’re a criminal trying to get your hands on Bitcoin, you won’t have to teach your targets how to buy coins on the internet and transfer them to another wallet—they probably already know how to use an ATM and scan a QR code.

Posted on November 16, 2021 at 6:18 AMView Comments

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.

Posted on September 24, 2021 at 2:05 PMView Comments

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 “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.

Posted on July 26, 2021 at 6:30 AMView Comments

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.

Posted on May 3, 2021 at 9:36 AMView Comments

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.

EDITED TO ADD (4/14): A research paper on erasing data from Bitcoin blockchain.

Posted on March 17, 2021 at 6:10 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.