david wong

Hey! I'm David, the author of the Real-World Cryptography book. I'm a crypto engineer at O(1) Labs on the Mina cryptocurrency, previously I was the security lead for Diem (formerly Libra) at Novi (Facebook), and a security consultant for the Cryptography Services of NCC Group. This is my blog about cryptography and security and other related topics that I find interesting.

In response to Moxie's doubts on web3, and about ultra light clients posted 2 weeks ago

Moxie just wrote his first impressions on web3. If you've been wondering about web3, and want a non-bullshit and technical glance at what it is, I think this is a really good post.

While I do agree with his critics, I don't share his skepticism. Let's look at his description of how most users interact with decentralized apps (dapps):

For example, whether it’s running on mobile or the web, a dApp like Autonomous Art or First Derivative needs to interact with the blockchain somehow – in order to modify or render state (the collectively produced work of art, the edit history for it, the NFT derivatives, etc). That’s not really possible to do from the client, though, since the blockchain can’t live on your mobile device (or in your desktop browser realistically). So the only alternative is to interact with the blockchain via a node that’s running remotely on a server somewhere.

A server! But, as we know, people don’t want to run their own servers. As it happens, companies have emerged that sell API access to an ethereum node they run as a service, along with providing analytics, enhanced APIs they’ve built on top of the default ethereum APIs, and access to historical transactions. Which sounds… familiar. At this point, there are basically two companies. Almost all dApps use either Infura or Alchemy in order to interact with the blockchain. In fact, even when you connect a wallet like MetaMask to a dApp, and the dApp interacts with the blockchain via your wallet, MetaMask is just making calls to Infura!

This is a real problem. To interact with the blockchain, you need to download its whole history with a program. This takes a lot of time (sometimes days) and space. This is not realistic for most users, and even less so for mobile users. The solution has been to just trust a public node. Infura is one of them and has become quite "trusted" through being the backend behind Metamask, the most popular Ethereum wallet. This service can lie to you, and you wouldn't notice. As such, the whole security of the blockchain is moot once you start interacting through a public node.

“It’s early days still” is the most common refrain I see from people in the web3 space when discussing matters like these. In some ways, cryptocurrency’s failure to scale beyond relatively nascent engineering is what makes it possible to consider the days “early,” since objectively it has already been a decade or more.

Did you know that most of the web was not encrypted until recently? For example, Facebook defaulted to https in 2013. Not even a decade ago. Cryptocurrencies have come a long way since the advent of Bitcoin, and research has exploded in all directions. It is early days.

Now, what are the actual solutions that exist in the space?

First, newer byzantine-fault tolerant (BFT) consensus protocols have straight-forward solutions to this problem. Since each block is cryptographically certified by consensus participants, and no re-organization (or forks) can happen, the certification can be reused to provide a proof to the clients (the real ones). As such, Infura could very well give you this cryptographic proof to accompany a response to your request, and the problem would be fixed. This is what Celo is doing with Plumo, but more generally any blockchain that uses a BFT consensus (Diem/Libra, Cosmos, Algorand, Dfinity, etc.) should be able to implement something like this.

The security guarantee is not as high as verifying every block since the beginning of time (the genesis). (For this, cryptocurrencies like Mina have proposed recursive zero-knowledge proofs solutions that attest to all the state transition since genesis.) Plumo calls this ultra-light clients:

We observe that in order to verify the latest block header in BFT networks a client only needs the public keys of the current committee. As long as no committee has had a dishonest supermajority, a client who verifies a chain of committee hand-off messages certifying the PoS election results, known as epoch messages, does not need to check each block or even the headers of each block. Instead, to make (or verify a recent) transaction, the client simply asks for the latest (or otherwise relevant) block header, and verifies that it has been signed by a supermajority of the current committee. This constitutes the simplifying assumption (SA) and light client protocol proved by Plumo.

Another issue is key rotations, which increase the size of the proof (as you need to give proofs to all the key rotations before you can give a proof to the latest state of the chain), but I believe that zero-knowledge proofs can fix that as well.

Bottom line: it's actually not that grim, solutions are there, but users have to care for people to implement them, apply them, and for the solutions to receive adoption. OK, this is pretty much what Moxie says:

However, even if this is just the beginning (and it very well might be!), I’m not sure we should consider that any consolation. I think the opposite might be true; it seems like we should take notice that from the very beginning, these technologies immediately tended towards centralization through platforms in order for them to be realized, that this has ~zero negatively felt effect on the velocity of the ecosystem, and that most participants don’t even know or care it’s happening. This might suggest that decentralization itself is not actually of immediate practical or pressing importance to the majority of people downstream, that the only amount of decentralization people want is the minimum amount required for something to exist, and that if not very consciously accounted for, these forces will push us further from rather than closer to the ideal outcome as the days become less early.

But this is not counting on Infura getting hacked. And it will get hacked.

Well done! You've reached the end of my post. Now you can leave a comment or read something else.

Comments

Eddard

Moxie overlooked an important point -> your data isn’t centralized. Even if access is centralized. Let’s say I use a centralized node to access that network. Let’s say that centralized node does something I don’t like. I’m free to start my own node or go to any other provider and my content still lives. So he’s simply wrong about this “centralization” gotcha. If I leave Facebook, I can’t log in to some other site and see my posts. If I leave gmail, I can’t spin up an SMTP with the same cards and get access to my mail. I’m surprised he leaned into such a weak and thoughtless argument

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