Bitcoin: A Target Without an Army to Defend It (Op-Ed)

In the event of an attack, who would defend Bitcoin? The fast answer would be its users—a distributed collective of like-minded individuals. But would they be enough?

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Bitcoin: A Target Without an Army to Defend It (Op-Ed)

Does Bitcoin Have Anyone to Defend It?

In the event of an attack, who would defend Bitcoin? The fast answer would be its users—a distributed collective of like-minded individuals. But would they be enough?

In his classic book, Art of War, Sun Tzu taught that a divided enemy is a weak enemy. With Bitcoin, the division isn’t caused by the community members being part of a collective. It’s a physical division. While transactions are secure in the sense that miners protect their veracity and maintain Bitcoin from being tampered with, miners can’t currently protect the network against physical or virtual attacks.

Physical Attacks

Contrarians in the crowd would be very fast to add that Bitcoin needs no defense, and they would be right. But what if, in some totalitarian dystopia, Bitcoin users were hunted down? Let’s contemplate this wild hypothesis.

Currently, Bitcoin users are highly dispersed. If the entire Bitcoin network were confined to a single totalitarian country, where it was outlawed and citizens were prosecuted, it country could really hinder Bitcoin’s progress, or reduce it to an illegal underground.

Physical destruction or confiscation of all the Bitcoin client host machines would be enough to eradicate it. This is the equivalent of throwing torrent machines out the window. I know, it’s really unlikely.

Gavin Andresen is quoted as saying:

“Unless you are very careful in the way you use Bitcoin (and you have the technical know-how to use it with other anonymizing technologies like Tor or i2p), you should assume that a persistent, motivated attacker will be able to associate your IP address with your bitcoin transactions.”

There are entire papers and books on this topic.

The eventual Bit Résistance would shield themselves in Tor nodes and darknets. Hidden from ISP sight, the use of coins would be confined to buying illicit products and keeping value out of the regime’s purview.

Virtual Attacks and the Bit Résistance

In a previous article, I mentioned that the blockchain can be used to store arbitrary data. I’m no security expert, but the creators of malicious code could upload encrypted data into the chain and it would sync to every blockchain-containing wallet.

It is not far-fetched to think that a future chain-killing virus could take advantage of its own target’s strengths to kill it. The application itself could even fake being legit It would only need a decryption key and access to the blockchain to retrieve (and redistribute) its encrypted malicious parts.

Because what’s to stop it from “downloading” its data, even from an offline computer, if it has access to the chain? An offline computer would still have to be infected, but as long as the malicious software has access to the blockchain, it would be enough. If no healthy Bitcoin client has access to the Internet, the case is settled and the network is defeated.

If the US and Israel created Stuxnet to hit Iran’s nukes, who’s to stop a hypothetical “Evil Anti-Bitcoin Bank” from rolling out its own virus aimed at the Bitcoin network? The open source community and its legions of Bitcoin-loving hackers would be more than happy to fight against the “Evil Anti-Bitcoin Bank.” My betting chips are on those hackers.

The Physical Army

To give a little real-world perspective, there are currently 15 countries without armies, and those are the lands of Andorra, Costa Rica, Grenada, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vatican City.

Encompassing an area of 85,997.59 square kilometers with approximately 6,128,851 inhabitants, they hold about 0.08% of the world’s ever-growing population. Of these nations, 12 are island based without immediate threats, save natural disasters. Two are landlocked principalities, and one is a very well-known enclave.

As one would correctly assume, these countries have very little need for armies. Some have alliances with major powers, and that’s it. Why bother spending resources on something unnecessary?

The decentralized architecture of Bitcoin seems to be the virtual equivalent of living in a small peaceful Caribbean paradise. But if the world were to suddenly turn hostile, an army of motivated programmers, which does very well in cyberspace, is no match for the professionally trained and well-armed counterpart of modern day mercenaries. And while Russian hitmen have been quick to add bitcoin to their payment options, the famous Blackwater (now Academi) private military contractor is not taking bitcoin payments (yet).

The Never-Happening War

What could happen in a hostile scenario is best left to fiction. The virtual and physical war would be very interesting indeed, and perhaps unprecedented. And who’s to know what would happen to Bitcoin’s price?

With ever-growing computing power and storage on mobile devices, the propagation of the chain from device to device would be relentless—nothing would stop it, short of a global blackout or REALLY lawful citizens. In this sense, Bitcoin is like a very hard-to-kill, highly-resistant agricultural pest.

There would be many ways for the community to preserve itself. Private keys would be easy to back up, but without the chain, they’re meaningless. The chain could also be encrypted and backed up, but would there be enough copies to ensure its integrity?

If the prosecution is great, the chain could be embedded and hidden into other files. If Maxis could store Spore’s creature data in their PNGs, why not use metadata on something as apparently “innocent” as stock photo sites? Any decent stock photo site will have tens of millions of pictures (Dreamstime alone has more than 31.5M), which at a rate of 10 hidden kb per image, adds up to about 315 GBs—more than enough to hold 10 times the current blockchain size.

And this is just an idea from the top of my head. Think about what a sizeable amount of dedicated and fiercely motivated freedom coders could come up with. There are as many ways to protect Bitcoin as there are of disguising, encrypting and backing up data.

Until something really bad happens, the community will have to cross their fingers and hope that they will never have to take up arms to defend Bitcoin. 

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