In 2008, Bitcoin was envisioned by its pseudonymous founder Satoshi Nakamoto as a trustless, decentralized peer-to-peer electronic cash system.
Ten years and numerous crazy price jumps later, Bitcoin appears to have withstood the test of time. But is it really decentralized and thus resilient to attacks?
A new paper, signed by researchers from from Princeton University and Florida International University, suggests that Bitcoin is largely at the whim of one powerful entity: China.
The paper (found via The Next Web), which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, outlines numerous potential attacks and disruptions China could launch against Bitcoin. It also argues that China has both the means and motivation to potentially launch such attacks, and that it is already influencing the network in some ways.
Bitcoin’s network is powered by miners, who employ a vast amount of computing power to process transactions and create new bitcoins in the process. The total amount of that power is represented as total hash rate, and according to the paper, 74% of it resides in China.
This has been a well-known and worrying fact for quite some time, as it theoretically enables the Chinese miners (collected into large entities called mining pools) to band up and launch a so-called 51% attack on Bitcoin, essentially taking over the entire network (though the viability and practicality of such an attack in this scenario is up for debate).
But the paper also points out that China’s Great Firewall and Great Cannon, tools used to filter, monitor and modify internet traffic in the country, could be used to affect Bitcoin’s network in certain ways. In fact, the paper argues that some properties of the Great Firewall had, for a certain period of time, incentivized Chinese miners to mine so-called “empty blocks,” which slowed down the entire network. This particular issue has been fixed with an upgrade to Bitcoin’s software called BIP152. The paper, however, argues that this issue demonstrated “the power of China’s technical capabilities for domestic control to weaken Bitcoin, even unintentionally, on a global scale.”
The paper outlines numerous other ways in which China, armed with a number of regulatory and technical “weapons,” can affect Bitcoin. These include censorship attacks, which would prevent a certain user to commit transactions to Bitcoin’s blockchain. There are also deanonymization attacks, which could tie Bitcoin transactions — which are theoretically anonymous — to real world entities. With its vast, concentrated mining power, China could disrupt competing mining operations. And finally, a number of attacks could be launched to completely destabilize, disrupt or destroy the network.
Things aren’t that simple, though. The researchers note that China does not directly control the miners operating in its territory, though it certainly can influence or strong-arm them in certain ways. There’s also the question of motivation — why would China be interested in disrupting or destroying Bitcoin? The paper argues that “Bitcoin stands in ideological opposition to China’s centralized governing philosophy.” China also may want to attack Bitcoin for the purpose of law enforcement, and it could simply want to increase control over it.
“Finally, as Bitcoin becomes more widely used and more tightly integrated into global financial systems, it becomes a possible vector for attacking foreign economies,” the paper states.
The research paints a dire picture for Bitcoin, whose biggest advantage over traditional payment networks is the fact that it doesn’t have to rely on any one central entity to operate. This property is far less useful if a single entity is able to disrupt, censor or destroy Bitcoin’s network.
“We singled out China for analysis because they are the most powerful potential adversary to Bitcoin, and we found that they have a variety of salient motives for attacking the system and a number of mature capabilities, both regulatory and technical, to carry out those attacks,” the paper concludes. “As future work, we suggest an analysis of existing solutions to the specific threats China poses to Bitcoin and the identification and mitigation of gaps in those protections.”
Disclosure: The author of this text owns, or has recently owned, a number of cryptocurrencies, including BTC and ETH.