February 10, 2014

Bitcoin Verification Latency -- MtGox hit by market timing attack, squeezed between the water of impatience and the rock of transactional atomicity

Fresh on the heels of our release of "Bitcoin Verification Latency -- The Achilles Heel for Time Sensitive Transactions" it seems that Mt.Gox has been hit by exactly that - a market timing attack based on latency. In their own words:

Non-technical Explanation:

A bug in the bitcoin software makes it possible for someone to use the Bitcoin network to alter transaction details to make it seem like a sending of bitcoins to a bitcoin wallet did not occur when in fact it did occur. Since the transaction appears as if it has not proceeded correctly, the bitcoins may be resent. MtGox is working with the Bitcoin core development team and others to mitigate this issue.

Technical Explanation:

Bitcoin transactions are subject to a design issue that has been largely ignored, while known to at least a part of the Bitcoin core developers and mentioned on the BitcoinTalk forums. This defect, known as "transaction malleability" makes it possible for a third party to alter the hash of any freshly issued transaction without invalidating the signature, hence resulting in a similar transaction under a different hash. Of course only one of the two transactions can be validated. However, if the party who altered the transaction is fast enough, for example with a direct connection to different mining pools, or has even a small amount of mining power, it can easily cause the transaction hash alteration to be committed to the blockchain.

The bitcoin api "sendtoaddress" broadly used to send bitcoins to a given bitcoin address will return a transaction hash as a way to track the transaction's insertion in the blockchain.
Most wallet and exchange services will keep a record of this said hash in order to be able to respond to users should they inquire about their transaction. It is likely that these services will assume the transaction was not sent if it doesn't appear in the blockchain with the original hash and have currently no means to recognize the alternative transactions as theirs in an efficient way.

This means that an individual could request bitcoins from an exchange or wallet service, alter the resulting transaction's hash before inclusion in the blockchain, then contact the issuing service while claiming the transaction did not proceed. If the alteration fails, the user can simply send the bitcoins back and try again until successful.

Which all means what? Well, it seems that while waiting on a transaction to pop out of the block chain, one can rely on a token to track it. And so can ones counterparty. Except, this token was not exactly constructed on a security basis, and the initiator of the transaction can break it, leading to two naive views of the transaction. Which leads to some game-playing.

Let's be very clear here. There are three components to this break: Latency, impatience, and a bad token. Latency is the underlying physical problem, also known as the coordination problem or the two-generals problem. At a deeper level, as latency on a network is a physical certainty limited by the speed of light, there is always an open window of opportunity for trouble when two parties are trying to agree on anything.

In fast payment systems, that window isn't a problem for humans (as opposed to algos), as good payment systems clear in less than a second, sometimes known as real time. But not so in Bitcoin; where the latency is from 5 minutes and up to 120 depending on your assumptions, which leaves an unacceptable gap between the completion of the transaction and the users' expectations. Hence the second component: impatience.

The 'solution' to the settlement-impatience problem then is the hash token that substitutes as a final (triple entry) evidentiary receipt until the block-chain settles. This hash or token used in Bitcoin is broken, in that it is not cryptographically reliable as a token identifying the eventual settled payment.

Obviously, the immediate solution is to fix the hash, which is what Mt.Gox is asking Bitcoin dev team to do. But this assumes that the solution is in fact a solution. It is not. It's a hack, and a dangerous one. Let's go back to the definition of payments, again assuming the latency of coordination.

A payment is initiated by the controller of an account. That payment is like a cheque (or check) that is sent out. It is then intermediated by the system. Which produces the transaction.

But as we all know with cheques, a controller can produce multiple cheques. So a cheque is more like a promise that can be broken. And as we all know with people, relying on the cheque alone isn't reliable enough by and of itself, so the system must resolve the abuses. That fundamental understanding in place, here's what Bitcoin Foundation's Gavin Andresen said about Mt.Gox:

The issues that Mt. Gox has been experiencing are due to an unfortunate interaction between Mt. Gox’s implementation of their highly customized wallet software, their customer support procedures, and their unpreparedness for transaction malleability, a technical detail that allows changes to the way transactions are identified.

Transaction malleability has been known about since 2011. In simplest of terms, it is a small window where transaction ID’s can be “renamed” before being confirmed in the blockchain. This is something that cannot be corrected overnight. Therefore, any company dealing with Bitcoin transactions and have coded their own wallet software should responsibly prepare for this possibility and include in their software a way to validate transaction ID’s. Otherwise, it can result in Bitcoin loss and headache for everyone involved.

Ah. Oops. So it is a known problem. So one could make a case that Mt.Gox should have dealt with it, as a known bug.

But note the language above... Transaction malleability? That is a contradiction in terms. A transaction isn't malleable, the very definition of a transaction is that it is atomic, it is or it isn't. ACID for those who recall the CS classes: Atomic, consistent, independent, durable.

Very simply put, that which is put into the beginning of the block chain calculation cycle /is not a transaction/ whereas that which comes out, is, assuming a handwavy number of 10m cycles such as 6. Therefore, the identifier to which they speak cannot be a transaction identifier, by definition. It must be an identifier to ... something else!

What's happening here then is more likely a case of cognitive dissonance, leading to a regrettable and unintended deception. Read Mt.Gox's description above, again, and the reliance on the word becomes clearer. Users have known to demand transactions because we techies taught them that transactions are reliable, by definition; Bitcoin provides the word but not the act.

So the first part of the fix is to change the words back to ones with reliable meanings. You can't simply undefine a term that has been known for 40 years, and expect the user community to follow.

(To be clear, I'm not suggesting what the terms should be. In my work, I simply call what goes in a 'Payment', and what comes out a 'Receipt'. The latter Receipt is equated to the transaction, and in my lesson on triple entry, I often end with a flourish: The Receipt is the Transaction. Which has more poetry if you've experienced transactional pain before, and you've read the whole thing. We all have our dreams :)

We are still leaves the impatience problem.

Note that this will also affect any other crypto-currency using the same transaction scheme as Bitcoin.

To put things in perspective, it's important to remember that Bitcoin is a very new technology and still very much in its early stages. What MtGox and the Bitcoin community have experienced in the past year has been an incredible and exciting challenge, and there is still much to do to further improve.

When we did our early work in this, we recognised that the market timing attack comes from the implicit misunderstanding of how latency interferes with transactions, and how impatience interferes with both of them. So in our protocols, there is no 'token' that is available to track a pending transaction. This was a deliberate, early design decision, and indeed the servers still just dump and ignore anything they don't understand in order to force the clients away from leaning on unreliable crutches.

It's also the flip side of the triple-entry receipt -- its existence is the full evidence, hence, the receipt is the transaction. Once you have the receipt, you're golden, if not, you're in the mud.

But Bitcoin had a rather extraordinary problem -- the distribution of its consensus on the transaction amongst any large group of nodes that wanted to play. Which inherently made transactional mechanics and latency issues blow out. This is a high price to pay, and only history is going to tell us whether the price is too high or affordable.

Posted by iang at February 10, 2014 07:36 AM | TrackBack

Dear Bitstamp users

Bitstamp’s exchange software is extremely cautious concerning Bitcoin transactions. Currently it has suspended processing Bitcoin withdrawals due to inconsistent results reported by our bitcoind wallet, caused by a denial-of-service attack using transaction malleability to temporarily disrupt balance checking. As such, Bitcoin withdrawal and deposit processing will be suspended temporarily until a software fix is issued.

No funds have been lost and no funds are at risk.

This is a denial-of-service attack made possible by some misunderstandings in Bitcoin wallet implementations. These misunderstandings have simple solutions that are being implemented as we speak, and we're confident everything will be back to normal shortly.

Withdrawals which failed on the 10th and 11th of February will be canceled and the amounts added back to the customer account balances.

Posted by: bitstamp withdrawal suspended at February 11, 2014 03:20 PM
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