Bitcoin Box

A magazine dedicated to all things Bitcoin


Taking Down the Bitcoin Network

author: Theodore Minick
published: 2011-06-14 12:56:18 UTC

One of Bitcoin's greatest strengths is its distributed nature. Unlike Napster, Bitcoin has no central server for the government to shut down, no real leaders to capture or subvert, Even the creator is anonymous, and, as near as I can tell, dropped off the map. Its users are scattered all over the globe, even in countries such as China. An attempt at a crack-down on Bitcoin would make Operation Sundevil look like organizing a church bake sale.

Should the major pools be taken down, that will hardly affect the average user of Bitcoin, and even the miners would simply form another pool. They would be, figuratively speaking, nailing gelatin to the wall. They might get a few particles to stick, but the greater mass will slip away. And here's how: Bitcoin is not housed at any one place. The network itself is distributed about the internet, with no one server approving or denying each block of transactions. The network as a whole determines the validity of each block, so, as long as there is even one computer hashing to find the next block, Bitcoin will continue to operate, continue to process transactions, and trade in Bitcoin could continue. Also, every client program that allows users to send and receive Bitcoins also allows users to generate Bitcoins. So, as long as there are two people willing to use Bitcoins, they will have a safe, secure way to trade wealth.

The likelihood that some government is going to declare Bitcoin illegal and try to crack down on it is low, but let's entertain a few scenarios, shall we?

In our first scenario, some unholy alliance of governments conspire to, and succeed in, taking down each and every mining pool operator, leaving just the independent miners. Sure, a few people are going to be screwed out of some Bitcoins, as their balances get locked away with those servers, but those with highly profitable mining rigs or very low payout ceilings will be fine. The market itself will probably take a tiny hit as the miners re-organize, go solo, or start up their own servers. Aside from a few people in jail, and a day or two of bad hair days, Bitcoin would keep chugging right along. The biggest danger here is IP logs. If they're serious enough, the agencies can use those IPs to track down, at the very least, individual households where the Bitcoin mining software is being used. Pool operators: Protect your clients. Do not log IPs!

In our second scenario, a slightly more tech-savvy administration decides to block the port that Bitcoin uses. It leans on the ISPs, and convinces them that it would be "in their best interest" to block port 8333. This would fail utterly, as not only is port 8333 already in use by VMWare (and thus, blocking it would break a great many things), port-forwarding would allow Bitcoin users to continue to use 8333 internal to their network, and any arbitrary (as long as server and clients agreed) port number on the general web. To add insult to injury, a feature request is already in to allow the miner to choose an arbitrary port, both internal and external to their local network. Once completed, avoiding a port blocking attack would be as simple as typing in the new number.

Our third scenario is a little more worrisome, primarily because we don't, yet, have a good solution for it, if it is widely enough used. A single entity using Deep Packet Inspection to determine if a particular transmission is Bitcoin data can be defeated by using TOR or a similar service to wrap the data until it is external to that entity, but if enough countries use DPI to smoke out Bitcoins, we would be left without an exit node to use, and thus, screwed. That said, work is already underway to get Bitcoin running as a hidden service, either under TOR, or I2P, or some other similar network. DPI being used to block Bitcoin in even one country would surely prioritize this work, ensuring that it got done before the lock-down was complete. (That's not license to slack off though, guys, I'd like my BTC over I2P before we need it!)

Another tactic that could be used would be to directly attack, taking it offline, and cutting the program off at its source. While that would certainly ruin Gavin's day, and probably cut a good number of downloads of the software, again, they'd be trying to nail gelatin to the wall. The forums and main site would be up in a matter of days, if not hours, as a TOR hidden service, if need be, and the program itself would be on bittorrent so fast, heads would be spinning from here to Washington DC. (And how effective are the measures they've implemented to control that?) Nothing would have been accomplished but to notify users of Bitcoin that someone is out to get them, and that it's time to go underground.

A method that the government has already stumbled upon is to watch power consumption or heat exhaust, similar to marijuana grows. Should the State use this technique to track down miners, while it will reduce the maximum profitability of mining, it will greatly increase the minimum. Essentially, it will remove the large miners, or cause them to switch to smaller rigs, making small miners more profitable.

Even in a worst case scenario, if a government or some other anti-Bitcoin faction gets a hold of greater than 50% of the processing power (an extremely expensive feat, and hardly worth it unless you're really determined to destroy the network), the rest of the network can be reconfigured to reject that block chain. In fact, If it is technically viable, I would suggest that the network be configured now to reject any block from a source with 50% or greater of the processing power. I'm afraid I don't have the technical knowledge to explain how, or even know if it's possible to pre-configure that, but it is something I would like to see, as it would close the only real security hole Bitcoin has.

Thankfully, only governments would have any reason or incentive to destroy the Bitcoin network, as any private group who gets involved would benefit more by participating 'by the rules' than by trying to tear it down. In this, we have one great advantage: The hierarchical, bureaucratic nature of government makes it very inefficient compared to the distributed, flexible nature of the Bitcoin network.

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