Matthew Roberts

Former Bitcoin guy. Did some work on timechains, DAOs, and smart contracts.

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Turning back the clock on timechains - a follow-up

Notice: I removed subscribers and disabled subscriptions because I don’t like the idea of Subtle spamming people every time I make a post.

In 2015 I introduced the concept of a timechain as a solution to certain trust problems in smart contracts to mixed reviews. People like Greg Maxwell pointed out the uncertainty in the design which is something that would have made the timechain unsuitable for complex contracts whereby the timing of the clock needs to be within a certain range of accuracy [0].

But thinking about this some more I think there’s some very obvious solutions to this problem. There’s two main issues with my proposal:

  1. Serial hashing can be sped up on processors with faster clock speeds so the timechain will be broken faster than expected and
  2. The initial trust required in generating the chain.

Problem number 1 really needs to be considered in the context of two very

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Hundreds of lines of complex Bitcoin hacks reduced to a simple Solidity contract. Wow.

A couple of years back I was working on a smart contract in Bitcoin that implemented pay for private key contracts. The idea was that you can setup a contract to pay someone for releasing the details that allow a particular ECDSA Bitcoin private key to be extracted and payment is obviously conditional on the solution being correct.

In Bitcoin this is really damn complicated for a number of reasons. The first reason is that transaction IDs in Bitcoin can be randomly mutated so that chains of unconfirmed transactions can be invalided [0]. And the second reason is that all of the OP_CODES you need to create complex contracts in Bitcoin are either disabled or too limited to use.

That meant that the only way I could figure out how to get this contract to work on Bitcoin was to:

  1. Rely on a theoretical segwit existing (it’s not deployed yet) and
  2. Build a chain of transactions in such a way

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A coin for security

Here’s another idea for a cryptocurrency - a coin that rewards people for the practices they use to secure their cryptocurrencies on other blockchains.

This can all be done without trust because many aspects of cryptocurrency security already depend on cryptographic proof. A brief list of things that a cryptocurrency like this might check for includes:

  • N factor auth and hardware devices used for multi-sig signing.
  • Fail-safe theft recovery procedures
  • Password complexity and rotation checks (like revealing hash-locked inputs.)
  • Cryptographically provable wallet backups.
  • Use of privacy enhancing protocols.
  • Use of secure exchanges to purchase coins.
  • Other, e.g. provably secure constructs, possibly with trusted computing.

There are so many different ways to protect crypto-assets and I’ve put a lot of thought into working them all out over the years. But in spite of this the biggest

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Events are arbitrary

When I first got into Bitcoin my main area of interest was in smart contracts. I used to marvel at how the blockchain could be used to eliminate trust between people and I’d despair whenever an OP_CODE was removed (making the former harder to do.) But that’s only because I didn’t understand one subtle quality of how a blockchain works: events are arbitrary.

script.jpeg

The blockchain really only has two qualities worth mentioning:

  1. It can securely order events on a network of untrusted computers.
  2. It defines an event called a transaction.

The second quality is optional [0]. It just so happens that in the case of Bitcoin enough information is already included with the software to describe what a “transaction” means so that now its become impossible to separate the network definition of “the blockchain” from “a transaction” [1].

But if you understand why this is then you understand that the

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Expl0itch4ins

Update: 19/02/2017 - added discussion on hacker news.
I also added an example.
Update: 21/02/2017 - added discussion of obfuscated exploits, early disclosure penalties, incentives, and scalability

Bug bounties suck. Researchers routinely don’t get paid for their work and vendors continue to get away with the same shitty behavior. It’s a system that lacks any kind of accountability and only benefits the company.

Solution: Do it as a smart contract on a blockchain.

 An example

  1. A smart contract to audit a C-based program is written. It includes a test case to see if a file with a specific name has been created under the process’ permissions. It also includes information about the program.
  2. A researcher finds a bug and uses it to write a buffer overflow exploit. The exploit is designed to pass the test case and is written using a special domain specific language for exploitable code for

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Some simple smart contracts to dispel the hype

In the past I’ve said that “smart contracts” are protocols for exchanging crypto-payment for some kind of specialized product or service without the need for trust. But within the Bitcoin-space I still see many examples of things that shouldn’t really be called a smart contract at all.

So here are some examples of some smart contracts that clearly show how payment can be given for some kind of service that has then been intertwined with payments so closely that trust is removed.

I’ll start with the simplest contract I know of and move on to some new contracts that help demonstrate the idea behind universal verifiability in trustless trade protocols. Here is the first contract.

 Example 1: Paying for a hash collision


value1 = get_input()
value2 = get_input()
btc_address = get_input()

# Values need to be different to prove a collision.
if value1 == value2:
    exit()

if

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Hijacking consensus in Bitcoin with social engineering

Censorship in Bitcoin has become a massive problem [0]. There are only a number of places where people can speak their minds and be heard by the majority of Bitcoin users, and so far all of these places have become censored and controlled by only a handful of people [1].

If Bitcoin were suppose to be a technological response to trust in third-party financial companies then so far every Bitcoin user is still in the banking age of communication technology. And that is a very bad thing if you care about how centralization will effect Bitcoin in the future.

Without a decentralized medium for discussion anyone is able to control what information other people are allowed to post which creates the perfect opportunity to influence (and subsequently control) the ecosystem without ever having to compromise the blockchain directly.

This is possible because consensus in Bitcoin doesn’t just

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What if smart contracts were a new web standard = new achievement unlocked?

Edit: thought of a catchy name for this – Smart REST.

Smart contracts are all about formalizing trust relationships in an effort to try reduce critical points of failure within an agreement. The idea is that instead of trusting that a person will carry out a given function - we clearly segregate and define those responsibilities which can then be tied to the conditional release of collateral, the change of reputation, the conclusion of a legal contract, and even actions taking place within the real world.

To do this we use cryptographic ledgers which offer us a way to securely and publicly record relationships between individuals. In the case of financial relationships – some of these relationships can be made 100% trustless by using cryptography (a godsend to finance) - and in other cases its usually possible to reduce the amount of trust involved by using things like distributed

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How a super computer could prevent future exchange hacks

Emin Gün Sirer published a paper this year [0] that described “Bitcoin vaults” [1] - a new mechanism for forcing coins to be locking up for a certain amount of time before they can be spent. The idea is for the owner to be able to recover coins during a designated clearing phase whose progress is made publicly visible on the blockchain. The owner could then recover coins from transactions [2] that he or she didn’t authorize even if their private keys were compromised. This idea is genuinely revolutionary [10] as currently owners have no way to reverse payments if they get hacked.

vault_diagram.png

If something like this had of existed before the recent Bitfinex hack we might have had a chance to prevent it. Unfortunately, schemes like this rely on having to change Bitcoin’s consensus rules which is a task that’s notoriously difficult to do. Only certain changes to the code can be safely made and it

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Datachains: an AI driven DAS for incentivizing taste-based content delivery

Future decentralized autonomous systems (DAS) will likely be focused on distributing specialized AI agents for finding patterns in bulk data sets. These DAS will be funded with a pre-existing cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and then pegged to the entity in such a way that the assets can be given out as rewards for correct solutions without human intervention. The resulting system forms a decentralized, autonomous, peer-to-peer, client-to-client, datachain that rewards assets for finding data that the AI likes.

The use-cases for such a system would be in big data processing, web scraping, and data mining where remote files are scattered all over the Internet and are too resource intensive for any one organization to search for specific patterns. Such a system may help us to find new meaning in the vast stores of content already accessible via the Internet and what better example to start

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