• Posted by Konstantin 29.03.2017 No Comments

    The following is an expanded version of an explanatory comment I posted here.

    Alice's Diary

    Alice decided to keep a diary. For that she bought a notebook, and started filling it with lines like:

    1. Bought 5 apples.
    2. Called mom.
    3. Gave Bob $250.
    4. Kissed Carl.
    5. Ate a banana.

    Alice did her best to keep a meticulous account of events, and whenever she had a discussion with friends about something that happened earlier, she would quickly resolve all arguments by taking out the notebook and demonstrating her records. One day she had a dispute with Bob about whether she lent him $250 earlier or not. Unfortunately, Alice did not have her notebook at hand at the time of the dispute, but she promised to bring it tomorrow to prove Bob owed her money.

    Bob really did not want to return the money, so that night he got into Alice's house, found the notebook, found line 132 and carefully replaced it with "132. Kissed Dave". The next day, when Alice opened the notebook, she did not find any records about money being given to Bob, and had to apologize for making a mistake.

    Alice's Blockchain

    A year later Bob's conscience got to him and he confessed his crime to Alice. Alice forgave him, but decided to improve the way she kept the diary, to avoid the risk of forging records in the future. Here's what she came up with. The operating system Linups that she was using had a program named md5sum, which could convert any text to its hash - a strange sequence of 32 characters. Alice did not really understand what the program did with the text, it just seemed to produce a sufficiently random sequence. For example, if you entered "hello" into the program, it would output "b1946ac92492d2347c6235b4d2611184", and if you entered "hello " with a space at the end, the output would be "1a77a8341bddc4b45418f9c30e7102b4".

    Alice scratched her head a bit and invented the following way of making record forging more complicated to people like Bob in the future: after each record she would insert the hash, obtained by feeding the md5sum program with the text of the record and the previous hash. The new diary now looked as follows:

    1. 0000 (the initial hash, let us limit ourselves with just four digits for brevity)
    2. Bought 5 apples.
    3. 4178 (the hash of "0000" and "Bought 5 apples")
    4. Called mom.
    5. 2314 (the hash of "4178" and "Called mom")
    6. Gave Bob $250.
      1010 (the hash of "4492" and "Gave Bob $250")
    7. Kissed Carl.
      8204 (the hash of "1010" and "Kissed Carl")

    Now each record was "confirmed" by a hash. If someone wanted to change the line 132 to something else, they would have to change the corresponding hash (it would not be 1010 anymore). This, in turn, would affect the hash of line 133 (which would not be 8204 anymore), and so on all the way until the end of the diary. In order to change one record Bob would have to rewrite confirmation hashes for all the following diary records, which is fairly time-consuming. This way, hashes "chain" all records together, and what was before a simple journal became now a chain of records or "blocks" - a blockchain.

    Proof-of-Work Blockchain

    Time passed, Alice opened a bank. She still kept her diary, which now included serious banking records like "Gave out a loan" or "Accepted a deposit". Every record was accompanied with a hash to make forging harder. Everything was fine, until one day a guy named Carl took a loan of $1000000. The next night a team of twelve elite Chinese diary hackers (hired by Carl, of course) got into Alice's room, found the journal and substituted in it the line "143313. Gave out a $1000000 loan to Carl" with a new version: "143313. Gave out a $10 loan to Carl". They then quickly recomputed all the necessary hashes for the following records. For a dozen of hackers armed with calculators this did not take too long.

    Fortunately, Alice saw one of the hackers retreating and understood what happened. She needed a more secure system. Her new idea was the following: let us append a number (called "nonce") in brackets to each record, and choose this number so that the confirmation hash for the record would always start with two zeroes. Because hashes are rather unpredictable, the only way to do it is to simply try out different nonce values until one of them results in a proper hash:

    1. 0000
    2. Bought 5 apples (22).
    3. 0042 (the hash of "0000" and "Bought 5 apples (22)")
    4. Called mom (14).
    5. 0089 (the hash of "0042" and "Called mom (14)")
    6. Gave Bob $250 (33).
    7. Kissed Carl (67).
      0093 (the hash of "0001" and "Kissed Carl (67)")

    To confirm each record one now needs to try, on average, about 50 different hashing operations for different nonce values, which makes it 50 times harder to add new records or forge them than previously. Hopefully even a team of hackers wouldn't manage in time. Because each confirmation now requires hard (and somewhat senseless) work, the resulting method is called a proof-of-work system.

    Distributed Blockchain

    Tired of having to search for matching nonces for every record, Alice hired five assistants to help her maintain the journal. Whenever a new record needed to be confirmed, the assistants would start to seek for a suitable nonce in parallel, until one of them completed the job. To motivate the assistants to work faster she allowed them to append the name of the person who found a valid nonce, and promised to give promotions to those who confirmed more records within a year. The journal now looked as follows:

    1. 0000
    2. Bought 5 apples (29, nonce found by Mary).
    3. 0013 (the hash of "0000" and "Bought 5 apples (29, nonce found by Mary)")
    4. Called mom (45, nonce found by Jack).
    5. 0089 (the hash of "0013" and "Called mom (45, nonce found by Jack)")
    6. Gave Bob $250 (08, nonce found by Jack).
    7. Kissed Carl (11, nonce found by Mary).

    A week before Christmas, two assistants came to Alice seeking for a Christmas bonus. Assistant Jack, showed a diary where he confirmed 140 records and Mary confirmed 130, while Mary showed a diary where she, reportedly, confirmed more records than Jack. Each of them was showing Alice a journal with all the valid hashes, but different entries! It turns out that ever since having found out about the promotion the two assistants were working hard to keep their own journals, such that all nonces would have their names. Since they had to maintain the journals individually they had to do all the work confirming records alone rather than splitting it among other assistants. This of course made them so busy that they eventually had to miss some important entries about Alice's bank loans.

    Consequently, Jacks and Mary's "own journals" ended up being shorter than the "real journal", which was, luckily, correctly maintained by the three other assistants. Alice was disappointed, and, of course, did not give neither Jack nor Mary a promotion. "I will only give promotions to assistants who confirm the most records in the valid journal", she said. And the valid journal is the one with the most entries, of course, because the most work has been put into it!

    After this rule has been established, the assistants had no more motivation to cheat by working on their own journal alone - a collective honest effort always produced a longer journal in the end. This rule allowed assistants to work from home and completely without supervision. Alice only needed to check that the journal had the correct hashes in the end when distributing promotions. This way, Alice's blockchain became a distributed blockchain.


    Jack happened to be much more effective finding nonces than Mary and eventually became a Senior Assistant to Alice. He did not need any more promotions. "Could you transfer some of the promotion credits you got from confirming records to me?", Mary asked him one day. "I will pay you $100 for each!". "Wow", Jack thought, "apparently all the confirmations I did still have some value for me now!". They spoke with Alice and invented the following way to make "record confirmation achievements" transferable between parties.

    Whenever an assistant found a matching nonce, they would not simply write their own name to indicate who did it. Instead, they would write their public key. The agreement with Alice was that the corresponding confirmation bonus would belong to whoever owned the matching private key:

    1. 0000
    2. Bought 5 apples (92, confirmation bonus to PubKey61739).
    3. 0032 (the hash of "0000" and "Bought 5 apples (92, confirmation bonus to PubKey61739)")
    4. Called mom (52, confirmation bonus to PubKey55512).
    5. 0056 (the hash of "0032" and "Called mom (52, confirmation bonus to PubKey55512)")
    6. Gave Bob $250 (22, confirmation bonus to PubKey61739).
    7. Kissed Carl (40, confirmation bonus to PubKey55512).

    To transfer confirmation bonuses between parties a special type of record would be added to the same diary. The record would state which confirmation bonus had to be transferred to which new public key owner, and would be signed using the private key of the original confirmation owner to prove it was really his decision:

    1. 0071
    2. Gave Bob $250 (22, confirmation bonus to PubKey6669).
    3. Kissed Carl (40, confirmation bonus to PubKey5551).
    4. TRANSFER BONUS IN RECORD 132 TO OWNER OF PubKey1111, SIGNED BY PrivKey6669. (83, confirmation bonus to PubKey4442).

    In this example, record 284 transfers bonus for confirming record 132 from whoever it belonged to before (the owner of private key 6669, presumably Jack in our example) to a new party - the owner of private key 1111 (who could be Mary, for example). As it is still a record, there is also a usual bonus for having confirmed it, which went to owner of private key 4442 (who could be John, Carl, Jack, Mary or whoever else - it does not matter here). In effect, record 284 currently describes two different bonuses - one due to transfer, and another for confirmation. These, if necessary, can be further transferred to different parties later using the same procedure.

    Once this system was implemented, it turned out that Alice's assistants and all their friends started actively using the "confirmation bonuses" as a kind of an internal currency, transferring them between each other's public keys, even exchanging for goods and actual money. Note that to buy a "confirmation bonus" one does not need to be Alice's assistant nor register anywhere. One just needs to provide a public key.

    This confirmation bonus trading activity became so prominent that Alice stopped using the diary for her own purposes, and eventually all the records in the diary would only be about "who transferred which confirmation bonus to whom". This idea of a distributed proof-of-work-based blockchain with transferable confirmation bonuses is known as the Bitcoin.

    Smart Contracts

    But wait, we are not done yet. Note how Bitcoin is born from the idea of recording "transfer claims", cryptographically signed by the corresponding private key, into a blockchain-based journal. There is no reason we have to limit ourselves to this particular cryptographic protocol. For example, we could just as well make the following records:

    1. Transfer bonus in record 132 to whoever can provide signatures, corresponding to PubKey1111 AND PubKey3123.

    This would be an example of a collective deposit, which may only be extracted by a pair of collaborating parties. We could generalize further and consider conditions of the form:

    1. Transfer bonus in record 132 to whoever first provides x, such that f(x) = \text{true}.

    Here f(x) could be any predicate describing a "contract". For example, in Bitcoin the contract requires x to be a valid signature, corresponding to a given public key (or several keys). It is thus a "contract", verifying the knowledge of a certain secret (the private key). However, f(x) could just as well be something like:

        \[f(x) = \text{true, if }x = \text{number of bytes in record #42000},\]

    which would be a kind of a "future prediction" contract - it can only be evaluated in the future, once record 42000 becomes available. Alternatively, consider a "puzzle solving contract":

        \[f(x) = \text{true, if }x = \text{valid, machine-verifiable}\]

        \[\qquad\qquad\text{proof of a complex theorem},\]

    Finally, the first part of the contract, namely the phrase "Transfer bonus in record ..." could also be fairly arbitrary. Instead of transferring "bonuses" around we could just as well transfer arbitrary tokens of value:

    1. Whoever first provides x, such that f(x) = \text{true} will be DA BOSS.
    2. x=42 satisifes the condition in record 284.
      Now and forever, John is DA BOSS!

    The value and importance of such arbitrary tokens will, of course, be determined by how they are perceived by the community using the corresponding blockchain. It is not unreasonable to envision situations where being DA BOSS gives certain rights in the society, and having this fact recorded in an automatically-verifiable public record ledger makes it possible to include the this knowledge in various automated systems (e.g. consider a door lock which would only open to whoever is currently known as DA BOSS in the blockchain).

    Honest Computing

    As you see, we can use a distributed blockchain to keep journals, transfer "coins" and implement "smart contracts". These three applications are, however, all consequences of one general, core property. The participants of a distributed blockchain ("assistants" in the Alice example above, or "miners" in Bitcoin-speak) are motivated to precisely follow all rules necessary for confirming the blocks. If the rules say that a valid block is the one where all signatures and hashes are correct, the miners will make sure these indeed are. If the rules say that a valid block is the one where a contract function needs to be executed exactly as specified, the miners will make sure it is the case, etc. They all seek to get their confirmation bonuses, and they will only get them if they participate in building the longest honestly computed chain of blocks.

    Because of that, we can envision blockchain designs where a "block confirmation" requires running arbitrary computational algorithms, provided by the users, and the greedy miners will still execute them exactly as stated. This general idea lies behind the Ethereum blockchain project.

    There is just one place in the description provided above, where miners have some motivational freedom to not be perfectly honest. It is the decision about which records to include in the next block to be confirmed (or which algorithms to execute, if we consider the Ethereum blockchain). Nothing really prevents a miner to refuse to ever confirm a record "John is DA BOSS", ignoring it as if it never existed at all. This problem is overcome in modern blockchains by having users offer additional "tip money" reward for each record included in the confirmed block (or for every algorithmic step executed on the Ethereum blockchain). This aligns the motivation of the network towards maximizing the number of records included, making sure none is lost or ignored. Even if some miners had something against John being DA BOSS, there would probably be enough other participants who would not turn down the opportunity of getting an additional tip.

    Consequently, the whole system is economically incentivised to follow the protocol, and the term "honest computing" seems appropriate to me.

    Now that you know how things work, feel free to transfer all your bitcoins (i.e. block confirmation bonuses for which you know the corresponding private keys) to the address 1JuC76CX4FGo3W3i2Xv7L86Vz4chHHg71m (i.e. a public key, to which I know the corresponding private key).

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  • Posted by Konstantin 18.09.2015 No Comments

    Steganography is a marvelous subject, which could be considered a subfield of cryptography. Unfortunately, it is some-why absolutely underrated nowadays. It is not covered by the standard computer science curricula (although it would fit perfectly both within lectures on Cryptography as well as Signal Processing), and way too many people believe steganography is something akin to adding grey stamps to images in Photoshop. Even the almighty Wikipedia, in its corresponding article, does not provide a decently clear view of the field, in my opinion. To fix this I thought I'd give a try at making up a short explanation myself.

    As mentioned, steganography is somewhat of a fellow discipline to cryptography. While the goal of cryptography is to protect the communication channel between Alice and Bob from some hypothetical evil Eve, the goal of steganography is to conceal the fact of communication itself. The classical setting is described as follows: Alice and Bob are kept imprisoned by the evil warden Walter. They are allowed to talk to each other, but Walter is listening to everything. How could Alice and Bob arrange a prison break without raising suspicion?

    Steganographic problems

    More specifically, steganographic problems can be divided into steganography against a passive warden, and steganography against an active warden.

    Passive warden steganography

    In this case Walter can only observe Alice and Bob's communication, but may not interfere. Walter's task is to be able to detect which of the messages between Alice and Bob contain secret meanings (if they do). If Walter comes up with a method by which he can distinguish innocent messages from the ones with a secret meaning with nontrivial probability, we shall say that Walter has succeeded in a "passive attack" on Alice and Bob's steganographic system.

    Besides helping imaginary prisoners hide from imaginary wardens, passive steganography has many practical applications. For example, some printers add a barely visible watermark to each printed page, which identifies the printer model and the date. Radio and TV advertisers sometimes include in their clips a hidden identifier of the product being advertised (which simplifies automated airtime monitoring and validation). Storage of image metainfo within the image itself (e.g. storing the patient id within its X-ray picture) may prevent confusion when data is transferred or converted, etc.

    It must be noted, that from the perspective of classical cryptography the methods mentioned above are not very interesting. Indeed, it is customary to assume in cryptography that all the details of the protocol used between Alice and Bob are open to all parties, including Walter. The only thing that Walter should not know is the "key". Without knowing this key Walter should be incapable of attacking the system. This is not the case in the examples with the printers and advertisements. No keys are involved and anyone who knows the algorithm can immediately discover the hidden message (i.e. attack the system).

    The methods for designing such systems focus primarily on techniques for adding information to a known audio/video/textual signal without distorting it in a perceivable manner and, possibly, making the presence of this information resilient to transformations that the signal may pass (video streaming, file format conversion, text normalization, etc). Consequently, the complexity of many such methods lies mostly in the area of signal processing. In the case of audio, for example, it could mean finding sound frequency components that, on one hand, will be left unchanged by most audio codecs, yet on the other hand could be modified without the listener perceiving the change. In some sense it resembles a fight between the codec (which attempts to remove any redundant channels) and the steganographic system (which aims to make use of any redundancy remaining).

    Active warden steganography

    A more interesting situation is where Walter is not only listening in to Alice and Bob's communications, but may also actively interfere, removing any potential hidden meanings. The best example here is copyright protection. They say that movies, when shown in cinemas, would usually contain a steganographic watermark in their video signal, which identifies the particular movie theatre. The "warden" here is a movie pirate, who might know about the existence of the watermark, and would be interested in removing it (without corrupting the movie itself, of course). Consequently, the watermark must be included in a way, where Walter the pirate is incapable of removing it, even if he knew all the details of the watermarking algorithm (except for a secret key, of course). Besides movie watermarking, similar techniques could be used by other authors to "sign" their creations so that their authorship could later be established, when necessary.


    Multiple methods exist for solving both the active and passive warden steganography. Not being able to list all of them, I will mention just the two core concepts, which I think are enough for an introductory overview.


    The most well-known example of steganography - least-significant-bit (LSB) steganography - is applicable to analog data, such as music and images. The idea is that small changes in some values (pixels, frequency components) of an analog signal would not affect the perception of the signal in a notable way. For example, by tuning some pixels in an image one could transmit several bits of additional information. Of course, the choice of those pixels should be determined using a shared secret key, otherwise Walter could easily detect or remove the covert message.

    The problem in the most naive version of this approach is that not every pixel in an image can be safely modified. For example, in regions filled with a single color any such change will be easy to spot. This can be overcome by only picking the pixels with enough variability in their neighborhood. Another weakness of the method is that the steganogram may be easy to remove by resizing or cropping the image. This can be prevented by hiding information in the spectral components rather than pixels - those are more resistant to the usual transformations. In fact, if we are dealing with a photograph or anything else that will be saved as a JPEG file, this approach would be quite nontrivial to break. The same ideas are used for steganographic processing of audio and video signals as well.

    Equivalence-class steganography

    Quite often Alice has a choice for multiple options for sending the same message. For example, when writing a text message to Bob, she can choose the phrasings. She can write "Hi" instead of "Hello", "Robert" instead of "Bob", punctuation can be used in multiple ways, and so on. When Alice is writing a novel, she is free to choose the names of the characters and places, chapter titles and even the order of events. Knowing the possible equivalence classes for the messages to be sent (e.g. words or sentences) as well as a common key, Alice may easily choose her words so that only Bob would be able to grasp whether there is a secret meaning and, if so, what it is.

    A simple practical example of a coding algorithm is the following: Alice will code a single bit by each sentence of her text. For obtaining this bit, Bob will have to apply a hash function to the sentence plus the secret key and use the last bit of that hash. During coding Alice will simply have to choose words so that each sentence would correspond to a correct bit.

    In its bare form the method is easy to attack - Walter may try to rephrase the text himself on transmission. This, in turn, can be overcome if Alice would hide the bits only into particularly chosen words or word sets (which can only be found by knowing the key), and do it using redundant coding (thus Walter would need to significantly alter the text if he wanted to be sure the message is removed). If Alice hides the message into the names of the characters of her novel, Walter may have no chances at all.

    Methods like that are claimed to be used by large software companies to watermark their code (here, instead of choosing synonymous words a specific algorithm will be choosing synonymous bytecode instructions). This makes it possible to track the particular license which was used to leak a pirated version. Another example is geographic mapping software, which may use various equivalent ways of displaying a fractal shore in order to watermark the image.

    As noted, other approaches and techniques exist (I did not find the space to properly mention public key steganography here, for example), yet I belive that LSB and EC-steganography largely illustrate the core ideas behind modern steganography in general as well as its possibilities and limitations. For those interested in the security proofs behind such techniques, this paper is a must read.


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  • Posted by Konstantin 09.03.2015 No Comments

    Playing cards are a great tool for modeling, popularizing and explaining various mathematical and algorithmic notions. Indeed, a deck of cards is a straightforward example for a finite set, a discrete distribution or a character string. Shuffling and dealing cards represents random sampling operations. A card hand denotes information possessed by a party. Turning card face down or face up looks a lot like bit flipping. Finally, card game rules describe an instance of a particular algorithm or a protocol. I am pretty sure that for most concepts in maths or computer science you can find some card game or a card trick that is directly related to it. Here are some examples of how you can simulate a simple computing machineillustrate inductive reasoning or explain map-reduce, in particular.

    Cryptographers seem to be especially keen towards playing cards. Some cryptographic primitives could have been inspired by them. There are decently secure ciphers built upon a deck of cards. Finally, there are a couple of very enlightening card-based illustrations of such nontrivial cryptographic concepts as zero-knowledge proofs and voting protocols. The recent course on secure two-party computation given by abhi shelat at the last week's EWSCS extended my personal collection of such illustrations with another awesome example — a secure two-party protocol for computing the AND function. As I could not find a description of this protocol anywhere in the internet (and abhi did not know who is the author), I thought it was worth being written up in a blog post here (along with a small modification of my own).

    The Tinder Game

    Consider the situation, where Alice and Bob want to find out, whether they are both interested in each other (just as if they were both users of the Tinder app). More formally, suppose that Alice has her private opinion about Bob represented as a single bit (where "0" means "not interested" and "1" means "interested"). Equivalently, Bob has his private opinion about Alice represented in the same way. They need to find out whether both bits are "1". However, if it is not the case, they would like to keep their opinions private. For example, if Alice is not interested in Bob, Bob would prefer Alice not to know that he is all over her. Because, you know, opinion asymmetry may lead to awkward social dynamics when disclosed, at least among college students.

    The following simple card game happens to solve their problem. Take five cards, so that three of them are red and two are black. The cards of one color must be indistinguishable from each other (e.g. you can't simply take three different diamonds for the reds). Deal one black and one red card to Alice, one black and one red card to Bob. Put the remaining red card on the table face up.

    Initial table configuration

    Initial table configuration

    Now Alice will put her two cards face down to the left of the open card, and Bob will put his two cards to the right of the open card:

    Alice and Bob played

    Alice and Bob played

    The rules for Alice and Bob are simple: if you like the other person, put your red card next to the central red card. Otherwise, put your black card next to the central one. For example, if both Alice and Bob like each other, they would play their cards as follows (albeit still face down):

    What Alice and Bob would play if they both liked each other

    What Alice and Bob would play if they both liked each other

    Now the middle card is also turned face down, and all five cards are collected, preserving their order:

    Five cards collected, preserving order

    Five cards collected, preserving order

    Next, Alice cuts this five-card deck, moving some number of cards from the top to the bottom (Bob should not know exactly how many). Then Bob cuts the deck (also making sure that Alice does not know how many cards he cuts). The result is equivalent to applying some cyclic rotation to the five card sequence yet neither Bob nor Alice knows how many cards were shifted in total.

    The five cards can now be opened by dealing them in order onto the table to find out the result. If there happen to be three red cards one after another in a row or two black cards one after another, Alice and Bob both voted "yes". Here is one example of such a situation. It is easy to see that it is a cyclic shift of the configuration with three red aces in the middle shown above.

    Both voted "yes"

    Both voted "yes"

    Otherwise, if neither three red aces nor two black aces are side by side, we may conclude that one or both of the players voted "no". However, there is absolutely no way to find out anything more specific than that. Here is an example:

    No mutual affection (or no affection at all)

    No mutual affection (or no affection at all)

    Obviously, this result could not be obtained as a cyclic shift of the configuration with three aces clumped together. On the other hand, it could have been obtained as a cyclic shift from any of the three other alternatives ("yes-no", "no-no" and "no-yes"), hence if Alice voted "no" she will have no way of figuring out what was Bob's vote. Thus, playing cards along with a cryptographic mindset helped Alice and Bob discover their mutual affection or the lack of it without the risk of awkward situations. Isn't it great?

    Throwing in a Zero-Knowledge Proof

    There are various ways Alice or Bob can try to "break" this protocol while still trying to claim honesty. One possible example is shown below:

    Alice is trying to cheat

    Alice is trying to cheat

    Do you see what happened? Alice has put her ace upside down, which will later allow her to understand what was Bob's move (yet she can easily pretend that turning a card upside down was an honest mistake). Although the problem is easily solved by picking a deck with asymmetric backs, for the sake of example, let us assume that such a solution is somewhy unsuitable. Perhaps there are no requisite decks at Alice and Bob's disposal, or they need to have symmetric backs for some other reasons. This offers a nice possibility for us to practice even more playing card cryptography and try to secure the original algorithm from such "attacks" using a small imitation of a zero-knowledge proof for turn correctness.

    Try solving it yourself before proceeding.

    Read more...

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  • Posted by Konstantin 20.01.2014 No Comments

    Bitcoin is a cryptographic currency, that has gained a lot of hype in the last year. From a technical perspective, it is simply a distributed timestamping scheme, fully dedicated to establishing the order of monetary transactions, by creating a long block chain.

    Adding a new block to the block chain requires extremely expensive distributed computations. Thus, in terms of the amount of energy, invested by the users worldwide into its creation, the block chain is, at the moment, probably the most expensive computer-generated file in human history. A monument to the raw "computation for the sake of computation". The Bitcoin network by now includes hundreds of thousands of users, most of whom keep a full copy of the block chain and contribute to its further growth.

    Timestamping hash, published in a paper

    All that means that including any information into the block chain can act as a solid timestamp, proving the existence of this information at a particular point in time. It is nearly impossible to fake or revoke. Even if the Bitcoin network would cease working, the block chain would probably be kept around at least as a curious artifact (as well as an object of interest for data miners) . The idea is equivalent to a popular practice of timestamping information by publishing it in a widely distributed newspaper. However, publishing in a popular newspaper may be costly, while getting transactions into the block chain is nearly free and accessible to anyone.

    Consequently, it seems obvious that sooner or later the bitcoin block chain must begin to be used for timestamping things other than transactions. Because trusted timestamping is a big deal. Everyone in Estonia knows that.

    Unfortunately, it seems that although the idea has been mentioned before, there do not seem to be any convenient services developed for that, apart from BTProof, which is somewhat too simplistic, given the potential importance of the task at hand. In an attempt to perhaps inspire someone to consider imlementing a more serious service of this kind, let me give a brief overview of the ways to get your data into the block chain.

    Smuggling your data into the block chain

    If only Bitcoin transactions were allowed to have textual descriptions assigned to them, the task would be trivial: any piece of information you want to timestamp could be simply mentioned in the description of a transaction. However, this functionality is not part of the Bitcoin protocol, so we have to use tricks. At least three different techniques are possible here.

    1.  Specifying your data as a destination address.

    Each Bitcoin transaction includes a "destination address", which is a 34-character string in hex-like encoding. This address may be specified arbitrarily. Thus, by transferring any amount to an address, which itself is the hash of the information you need timestamped, you will have the fact of information's existence mentioned in the block chain for future generations to behold. This is the idea behind BTProof. There are several problems with this method. Most importantly, anything you transfer to a nonexistent address will get lost forever, with no one being able to claim it. This makes the process non-free, because you cannot have transactions of size 0. Moreover, very small transactions are unfavoured by the Bitcoin network and take a long time to get verified. Finally, leaving "unclaimed" transactions forever hanging in the block chain is somewhat indecent in the first place, isn't it?

    The abovementioned drawbacks may be addressed using multi-signature transactions. Those are a special type of transactions, which allow the funds to be claimed by any one of several addresses. In this case one address can be used to encode the hash and another one — to reclaim the funds spent in the transaction back. This concept has been suggested as the way to carry arbitrary data on top of Bitcoin in the MasterCoin project.

    2. Specifying your data as a destination private key.

    Rather than converting the data you need timestamped into a (non-existent) address, you can turn it into a private key. You can then perform two transactions. The first one  transfers funds to an address, corresponding to this private key, and next one uses the private key to withdraw the funds back to you. As there is a fixed mapping from your data to the private key to the address that the funds went through, you have just included a trace of your data into the block chain. This method is mentioned here. The drawback is the need for two transactions, and the overall complexity of the scheme.

    3. Specifying your data in the script.

    Finally, the last two places in a bitcoin transaction, which allow custom data, are the two "script" fields. Namely, the act of depositing funds to a transaction in Bitcoin is not as simple as providing the target address. Instead, it is a script, that, when executed, is supposed to check the right of the receiver to obtain the funds. Similarly, the act of withdrawing funds from Bitcoin is expressed by a script that proves the rights of the owner.

    For example, a typical "deposition script" looks as follows:

    OP_PUSHDATAx <target_address>

    This script means that in order to withdraw the funds, the receiver must push on the stack a signature of the transaction, followed by his public key. The script then starts executing by first duplicating (OP_DUP) the top value on the stack, the public key. It then applies a hash function (OP_HASH160) to the top value on the stack (this converts the public key to an address). Then another value is pushed onto the stack (OP_PUSHDATAx). Next, two top values are popped and checked for equality (OP_EQUALVERIFY). This verifies, that the receiver's address matches <target_address>. Finally, the OP_CHECKSIG command pops another two values from the stack (those are the signature and the public key now, remember), and verifies the correctness of the signature.

    The beauty of the system is that it lets you create various rules for claiming funds apart from simply owning a private key to an address. For example, it is possible to create transactions which require multiple parties to collude to withdraw them. Or you may require the receiver of the funds to solve a puzzle. Or you may even put the funds up for anyone to take freely, etc.

    What is important for our purposes, however, is that the scripting language is rather flexible. In particular, it lets you add useless commands, such as "push this data onto stack, then drop the top value from stack, then continue as normal:"

    OP_PUSHDATAx <any_data> 
    OP_PUSHDATAx <target_address>

    This logic could be included in either the "depositing" or the "receiving" script, letting you essentially provide arbitrary "notes" in transactions and thus do timestamp data in the most reasonable way. This lets you timestamp using a single transaction, which recurrently transfers any amount from an address to itself.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the freedom of scripting has been severely limited in the recent versions of Bitcoin software. Namely, transactions with any nonstandard scripts are simply declined from inclusion into a block (at least, none of my attempts to try this out succeeded). Even the fate of multi-signature transactions, mentioned in point 1 (which are just a particular kind of a script) is not completely clear. In any case, the Bitcoin specification will most probably evolve to eventually allow storing dedicated data packets in the block chain without the need to resort to hacks. And if not Bitcoin, perhaps such functionality will become part of one of the competing similar cryptocurrencies.

    It seems unreasonable to run a huge distributed timestamping algorithm, and not let people use it for general-purpose timestamping, doesn't it?

    Update: Given the recent problems related to the transaction malleability aspect of the protocol, it is easy to predict that the freedom of scripting will probably be limited even further in the future. However, eventually support must be added for storing a custom nonce into the signed transaction (as it seems to be the only reasonable way to make transactions uniquely identifiable despite malleability of their hash). That nonce would be a perfect candidate for general-purpose timestamping purposes.

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