Stealing Bitcoin with Math
- Author: David Armitage
- Date: 17 Oct 2017
Quantum computing is advancing so fast that bitcoin could become hackable within months, not years. The NSA is so alarmed by how fast things are moving that it has dropped SHA-256 cryptography altogether, the same cryptography used in the Bitcoin protocol.
Should we worry? Probably.....
Bitcoin proponents argue that quantum computing isn't really a threat for 3 reasons:
1. Not all public keys are public
First, it is important to understand that Bitcoin addresses and public keys are different. A Bitcoin address is a quantum-proof one-way hash of the public key which is impossible to reverse engineer.
However, as soon as any Bitcoin is sent from an address, the public key is made public. Since approximately half of all bitcoin addresses have their public key revealed. Any quantum attack of this scale would likely prove fatal to the entire network.
2. Governments won't be incentivized to attack Bitcoin
The problem with this argument is that while government's might not be incentivized, the individuals who work there will be. We have seen numerous examples of government employees being corrupted when faced with the temptation of huge financial reward. For example, the FBI agents who took off with millions of dollars worth of bitcoin after the Silk Road was busted, or the leaker who sold a number of NSA zero day hacking exploits. The list goes on...
3. Bitcoin's cryptography can be upgraded
Bitcoin advocates point out that Bitcoin’s underlying encryption protocol, SHA-256, can be upgraded to something more robust like SHA-384. However, history has demonstrated that Bitcoin upgrades are slow and highly politicized. Bitcoin's infamous scaling debate has dragged on for years and is still not settled, with the latest round of drama to unfold in November.
Similar delays in dealing with a SHA-385 upgrade may also prove fatal. Further increasing the threat to Bitcoin's secutity is the imminent nature of this risk, Quantum computing is progressing a lot faster than most commentators expected.
How close are we to a quantum computer that can break bitcoin?
According to Jerry Chow of IBM’s quantum computing department;
"at 50 qubits, universal quantum computing would reach that inflection point and be able to solve problems existing computers can’t handle. This type of computing power would render the cryptography underlying bitcoin's protocol vulnerable".
IBM aims to deploy a fully functional 50-qubit computer "In the next few years.”
Google, on the other hand, could be just months away from completing a 49-qubit system. Charles Neill from University of California, Santa Barbara, and Pedram Roushan from Google have chosen a unique and novel approach in their design which involves a superconducting qubit. This involves using a loop of metal cooled to very low temperatures.
A crucial finding from their experiment has shown that the errors do not scale rapidly in these superconducting chips. Instead, the team demonstrated that the errors only increase slowly in a way that should allow for the meaningful superposition of up to a whopping 60 qubits!
Enter quantum resistant crypto currencies
Quantum resistant crypto currencies are the next generation of crypto and represent the bleeding edge in the crypto space. Currently only one live project, IOTA, has attempted to solve this problem. Unfortunately for IOTA, not long after its launch in early 2017, a serious flaw in its cryptography was discovered. This has cast serious doubt over project's claim to be quantum resistant.
As a result, the prize for the first truly Quantum Resistant crypto currency is likely to go the Quantum Resistant ledger (QRL) It will be the first ledger with encryption based on academically accepted quantum resistant cryptography. And it is expected to launch before Christmas 2017 according to a newly released road map.
Quantum Resistant Ledger (QRL) is adopting a post quantum cryptography called The Extended Merkle Signature scheme (XMSS), first reported by Buchman et al in 2011 according to their white paper.
In addition to the advanced cryptography, QRL will also have a staking mechanism which allows users to earn a return on their holdings. And future iterations of the protocol will include advanced forms of messaging and the adoption of smart contracts.
QRL already had a token sale which took place in May 2017. At the time, it released 52m ERC-20 tokens which will be exchanged on a one for one basis for coins on the main net when it launches towards the end of 2017.
Since the ICO, the QRL project suffered an unfortunate episode with the departure of a disgruntled employee. This caused some to lose faith in the project and a long price decline followed.
However, despite the short lived turmoil, the founder and the project showed resilience and the core development team expanded from 6 to 14. During this time the team has been working on the main net with lots of development activity on the QRL Github site.
The project addresses a very real threat that is fast approaching the crypto space. Its team is currently rated in the top 20 of over 1,000 other projects for development talent. Yet the coin’s low price continues to keep it outside the top 100 by market cap, and beyond the spotlight of most crypto commentators. We will be keeping a close eye on QRL’s continuous progress.
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