How to show you know something without showing what you know
Last Friday saw the launch of Zcash, a new public blockchain and associated cryptocurrency that attracted a lot of attention. By now, there are hundreds of cryptocurrencies, so any budding young entrant needs a serious differentiator to rise above the fray. In the case of Zcash, this is easy – Zcash users can send money to each other in absolute privacy. For a cryptocurrency based on a blockchain, this is a remarkable technical achievement. (Though it should be noted that other chains such as Monero and Dash aim at the same goal using simpler but less effective means.)
As I’ve written about before, in a general sense blockchains (whether public or private) represent a trade-off in which disintermediation is gained at the cost of confidentiality. Blockchains provide a clever new way for participants to safely share a database, even if they do not trust each other, without requiring a central intermediary. But there’s a price to pay for this peer-to-peer decentralization – the “node” belonging to every participant in the chain must verify every transaction for itself, and this in turn means that it sees what everyone else is doing.
Two ways to chain
In the case of public blockchains and cryptocurrencies, the shared database serves primarily as a record of who controls (and so effectively owns) how much cryptocurrency, with an optional sprinkling of “metadata” (bitcoin) or contractual logic (Ethereum) on top. By contrast, in private blockchains, we tend to see two major classes of use case: (a) the ownership and transfer of external assets represented by tokens on the chain, and (b) more general applications relating to data storage and retrieval. For example, in our own product MultiChain, these two classes of use case are implemented using native assets and data streams respectively.
When it comes to general data storage, the blockchain provides a number of services: proving where a piece of data comes from, timestamping it, and notarizing it immutably to prevent modification by a minority of blockchain participants. But the blockchain need have nothing to say about the data itself – each application can decide what a piece of data means, and whether it is valid. Bad data can simply be ignored at the application level, without causing harm to the blockchain’s state as a whole.
By contrast, if blockchains are directly transferring tokenized assets, they must apply internal rules regarding the validity of those transfers. To put it simply, an event such as “Alice pays Bob one Euro” will only be approved by the chain if Alice has at least one Euro to her name. While different types of blockchain express this rule in different ways (bitcoin transaction constraints vs Ethereum smart contracts), they all share the property that Alice’s finances must be known by every node in the chain. This allows them to assess whether her payment is valid, know how much Bob has as a result, and evaluate any future payments from Bob to Charlie and others.
At this point, readers familiar with blockchains will point out that Alice and Bob are not directly identified by name on a chain. Instead, each transacts under one or more “addresses”, which are long alphanumeric strings of gibberish that bear no relation to their real-world identities. While this is true, in reality it does not help a great deal, because there are several ways in which the connection between users and their addresses can be inferred.
First and most simply, in order to transact with someone on a blockchain, I need to know at least one of their addresses. So if I send them some money, I can see where that money goes next, and if they’re paying me, I can see where it came from. Second, if I happen to know something about a participant from the real world (e.g. what types of assets they trade at what time of day), I can search the chain’s activity for corresponding patterns, and then infer their address with a high level of confidence. Finally, once I know one address of a participant, I can often work out which other addresses they own and use, by monitoring the full flow of funds on the chain. While this is not trivial to achieve, it is certainly possible with sufficient motivation, as proven by companies such as Chainalysis and Skry who make a living providing this type of “network analysis” for bitcoin.
Saved by encryption?
The contrast between assets and data touches directly on the question of encryption. In the case of general data storage on a blockchain, we can encrypt the information stored, while still gaining the benefits of data provenance, timestamping and immutability. None of these features need insight into the data itself. Therefore it is perfectly valid for two participants to use a blockchain to store information which only they can read, while still gaining the benefit of other participants committing to the origin of that data and its existence at a certain point in time.
By contrast, encryption of this nature cannot be used by transactions that represent transfers of tokenized assets. If Alice and Bob were to encrypt their transaction, then the assets in question could not be used safely by any other participant in the chain, because nobody else would know where the assets actually are. The assets would cease to have any collective meaning on the chain, which destroys the entire point.
In the finance sector, this conflict between privacy and liquidity is the core difficulty of using blockchains to transfer assets, dashing the hopes of many a startup in the space. While the technical feasibility of moving assets over a blockchain has been proven by countless pilot projects, in practice this causes too much activity to be revealed between peers. Information leakage is a disadvantage at the best of times, but it’s a complete showstopper when a chain’s participants are in fierce competition, or where regulation forbids it.
As a result, many prominent “distributed ledger” startups have moved away from the idea of on-chain settlement, reverting to more traditional bilateral transactions which are encrypted and notarized on a blockchain under the “general data storage” paradigm. This can prevent disputes and double spends, but settlement itself remains external to the chain. While the blockchain is still providing some value, it is less transformative than originally hoped. No doubt there have been more than a few red-faced meetings between startups and their investors.
And yet, after all the disappointment, salvation may finally be at hand. Enter the zero knowledge blockchain.
Introducing zero knowledge
Before discussing this new type of blockchain, it’s helpful to understand the principle of zero knowledge itself. In a general sense, a zero knowledge proof is one which demonstrates the truth of a certain statement, without revealing any additional information beyond what it’s trying to prove.
To take an example, let’s say I have a color blind friend who owns two pens, which are identical except that one is green and one is blue. My friend cannot distinguish between them, and I want to convince her that they are indeed different. Of course, I can’t do this by simply telling her the colors, because she can’t assess if I’m lying or not.
So what can I do? (Why not take a minute and try to work out the answer yourself…) Well, I can ask her to take a piece of paper, and draw two lines on it in another room. When doing this, she can freely decide whether to use the same pen for both lines, or one pen for each. From her perspective the result looks the same either way. Then she comes back in with the paper, and I tell her whether she used one pen or two. Of course, if the pens were the same color, I would have no way of knowing. So the fact that I get it right proves they are different.
Well, not quite. There’s a problem with this logic. Even if the pens were identical I would still have a 50% chance of giving the right answer, because there are only two possibilities (she used one pen or two). So one lucky guess proves nothing at all. In order to strengthen my case, the game must be played over multiple rounds. After every round, my chance of being consistently right goes down by half. So with 5 rounds, I have a 1 in 32 chance of successfully faking. With 10 rounds, it’s 1 in 1024, and with 20 rounds, 1 in 1048576 – in other words, one in a million. Depending on my friend’s relative level of boredom and suspicion, she can reach any probabilistic level of proof that she desires, although never absolute certainty.
Bring on the snarks
Zero knowledge proofs in blockchains apply a similar principle, though of course they’re not about the color of pens. Rather, they aim to prove the statement “this transfer of assets is valid”, without revealing anything important about the transfer itself. Zcash uses a relatively new technique for zero knowledge proofs called zk-SNARKs, the full explanation of which is (to put it mildly) beyond the scope of this piece. But the basic idea is this: any computational condition can be represented by an arithmetic circuit, which takes some data as input and gives an answer of “true” or “false” in response. A zk-SNARK uses a model of this circuit to let me prove, to any desired degree of certainty, that I possess an input which gives a true response, without revealing the input itself. Philosophically at least, this is like proving that two pens are different colors, without revealing what those colors are.
A zk-SNARK uses a neat little trick to avoid the interactivity that is typical of zero knowledge proofs, in which a skeptical party repeatedly presents a challenge to the one making a claim. In the case of our pens, this challenge is my friend’s choice between using one or two pens in each round. This type of interactivity is not feasible on a blockchain because there is no trusted central party to set the challenges. Instead, a zk-SNARK uses an approximation of a “random oracle” in which the challenges are created deterministically by some code, but behave for all intents and purposes as if they were random. Not by coincidence, this combination of determinism and unpredictability uses the same kind of hash function that secures a blockchain itself.
Zero knowledge proofs have been around for a while, but zk-SNARKs introduce a number of innovations that render them usable in blockchains. Most importantly, zk-SNARKs reduce the size of the proofs and the computational effort required to verify them. Zerocoin, a previous attempt at using zero knowledge proofs in blockchains, requires 45 kb transactions, each of which takes half a second to check (figures taken from the white paper on which Zcash is based). This is drastically worse than bitcoin, whose transactions are typically 0.3 kb in size and can be verified in under a millisecond. By contrast, Zcash transactions weigh in at 1kb and can be checked in under 6 milliseconds. This puts Zcash in the same scalability league as bitcoin – a remarkable achievement. If we took our hats off to the creator(s) of bitcoin, we should take our socks and shoes off for this.
Before you convert all your bitcoin to Zcash, there are some caveats to bear in mind. First, Zcash’s cryptography relies on a trusted setup process, in which two long public keys are derived from a single randomly-generated private one. It is absolutely vital that this private key is destroyed, since anyone who possesses it can forge the proofs on which the system relies. In the case of Zcash, the private key was created in an elaborate ceremony, described in detail here. The ceremony involved several well known characters from the cryptocurrency world, each of whom (we are told) had only a partial view of the private key. In turn, this means that Zcash can only be compromised if all of the ceremony’s participants colluded maliciously. It is up to the reader to decide how confident they feel about that.
Second, even though it is relatively quick to verify an anonymous Zcash transaction, creating each of these transactions carries a serious computational burden. According to the Zcash Speed Center, it currently takes 48 seconds on a high-end server, and over 3 GB of memory. This makes it impractical to transact anonymously from mobile devices and older desktops and laptops. Zcash partially works around this limitation by supporting both regular visible cryptocoins (with fast transactions) and anonymous “notes” (with slow ones), with a built-in method for converting between the two.
Third, even if we assume that the underlying cryptography is sound, there could be bugs lurking in the Zcash code which allow anonymous notes to be conjured out of thin air. This would allow the Zcash monetary base to be limitlessly inflated, ultimately rendering the cryptocurrency worthless. Unlike transparent cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, this catastrophic event cannot be detected, because the entire point of Zcash is keeping transactions hidden. Nonetheless, according to Zooko Wilcox, the Zcash CEO, work is already under way to find a solution, so we can look forward to seeing it.
Finally, as with any cryptocurrency based on proof-of-work, the potential for 51% attacks remains. This means that a group of “miners” with over half of the network’s computational power can collude to reverse transactions that everyone else thought were complete (bad miners still cannot fake transactions which steal others’ funds). Zcash smartly relies on Equihash, a different hashing algorithm from bitcoin’s SHA-256, meaning that the huge mass of existing bitcoin mining power cannot be turned against Zcash. Equihash is also designed to be more resistant to the “ASICs” (special purpose microprocessors) that have turned bitcoin mining into an oligopoly, but only time will tell if hardware engineers can find a workaround, and at what cost.
Zero knowledge private blockchains
So far, we’ve focused our discussion on the public Zcash blockchain and cryptocurrency. But what about external assets moving over private or permissioned blockchains and shared ledgers? Can the same zero knowledge techniques be used?
On a technical level, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Compared with the theoretical and technological tour de force that underlies Zcash, it’s trivial to extend the protocol to support assets issued on a chain. All that’s required is to extend the conditions proven by a zk-SNARK to enforce the preservation of multiple assets, instead of a single cryptocurrency. Or even more simply, create multiple distinct anonymous subsystems on a single blockchain, each representing a different type of asset, and transact within each subsystem exactly as Zcash does today. This second method would require no understanding of zk-SNARKs at all.
How would an asset’s life cycle look in this model? First, a trusted entity issues tokens representing the asset, by sending a visible blockchain transaction certifying those tokens’ value. The same entity would then perform a second transaction which converts the visible tokens into anonymized Zcash-style “notes”, effectively moving the asset underground. These notes can then be secretly transferred from the issuer to others, and onwards among the chain’s participants. As with Zcash, the transfer transactions can be verified as valid by all blockchain participants without revealing their content. Finally, when a holder wishes to redeem a note, they convert it back into visible tokens using another Zcash-style transaction, send those tokens to the original issuer, and receive the equivalent real-world asset in return. We might also allow notes to be directly redeemed anonymously, in which case blockchain participants would not know how much of the asset remains in circulation.
So zero knowledge transactions promise to untie the Gordian knot which has prevented blockchains from being used for settlement in the finance sector. To recap, in a regular blockchain transaction, when an asset is sent from one bank to another, the details of that transaction are visible to every other bank on the chain. By contrast, in a zero knowledge transaction, the others only know that a valid transaction has taken place, but nothing about the sender, recipient, asset class (if we’re clever) and quantity. Even the volume of transactions can be obfuscated by participants regularly creating fake transactions in which they send assets to themselves.
In terms of privacy, this is as good as a gold bar travelling in a briefcase from one bank to another, but without the cost and time of physically moving the gold. And it’s better than using a trusted intermediary such as a custodial bank, because there isn’t even that single party who sees everything going on. For the first time, zero knowledge blockchains allow asset transfers to be digitally performed on a peer-to-peer basis, in perfect secrecy.
Don’t throw out that database (yet)
Assuming that Zcash’s technical fundamentals are sound, I fully expect it to reach the top tier of cryptocurrencies in terms of developer interest and market capitalization. But is there a similarly bright future for zero knowledge transactions in private blockchains? Will they make the transition from the laboratory to production-quality systems moving real money around the world?
It is, of course, far too early to tell. But there are a number of questions that need answering before permissioned blockchain advocates can point to zero knowledge transactions and triumphantly declare victory.
First, and most importantly, is this safe? Can we really be confident that both the underlying cryptography and its coded implementations are strong enough to prevent a malicious party from generating assets out of thin air? As mentioned earlier, unlike transparent blockchains, it is not yet possible to detect if the monetary base of a zero knowledge blockchain has been compromised. Still, there is no surer test of this technology than releasing it as an open public blockchain that is available for all to see and attack, and this is exactly what Zcash is doing. After several years of seeing Zcash running smoothly, institutions may become convinced that zero knowledge blockchains can genuinely safeguard their assets. As with all matters blockchain, patience is required.
A related issue is the novelty of zero knowledge cryptography itself. It’s true that regular blockchains rely on advanced cryptography – namely, asymmetric encryption (public/private keys) and cryptographic hash functions (digital fingerprints). And it’s also true that the great majority of blockchain programmers and application developers don’t understand the mathematical principles which underlie these techniques. But the broader point is this: if treated as black boxes, these methods have been widely employed for decades, by a huge number of developers and users (heard of https?) and everyone believes that they work. By contrast, until recently zero knowledge proofs were only known to a small community of academics, and didn’t have broad applications on the Internet or elsewhere. We can expect this obscurity to reduce the willingness of a bank’s CIO or risk officer to move their core processes to zero knowledge blockchains, at least for the next five years. And let’s not even start to imagine how long it will take regulators to get comfortable with assets moving around in this way.
Talking about regulation brings up another practical issue with zero knowledge blockchains. Anonymous transactions in a blockchain contain statements regarding asset transfers and ownership, but those statements are only visible to selected parties (namely, those directly involved). Even if we give a regulator full visibility into a zero knowledge blockchain and its participants’ identities, it has no way of knowing what is truly happening within. Of course, the regulator could ask all of the participants to identify and reveal their transactions, and they can do this efficiently using Zcash-style “viewing keys”. Nonetheless, if the parties to any particular transaction want to keep it secret, the regulator is stuck, and does not know who to fine. There is no custodial bank from whom it can obtain the full picture, and the only option for enforcement is to shut down the entire chain.
So what’s the bottom line? For now at least, I suggest simply following the progress of the public Zcash blockchain, to see how it develops and grows. If the history of Ethereum is repeated, there will be surprises and vulnerabilities lurking under the surface, waiting to be exploited by greedy opportunists. Nonetheless, in the longer term, make no mistake: zero knowledge transactions are a game-changing breakthrough for blockchains. If the underlying cryptographic principles prove sound, expect them to significantly broaden the range of use cases to which blockchains can be applied.
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Bitcoin’s ATH at $65K And Coinbase Nasdaq Listing: The Weekly Recap
This week was particularly eventful in the cryptocurrency market. Without a doubt, the highlight of it was the direct listing of Coinbase shares on Nasdaq. This is the first major cryptocurrency exchange to go public, and it did so in style. The trading opened at around $381 per share (ticked COIN), putting an opening value of around $100 billion.
But that’s not the only exciting thing that happened. The week started off with a blast as bitcoin surged past $60K on Saturday. However, the price was somewhat indecisive, and it couldn’t continue forward during the next few days. All of that ended on Tuesday when BTC skyrocketed above $63K and marked a new all-time high. But there was more to come.
On Wednesday, Bitcoin bulls forced another leg up and painted a fresh peak around $65,000 – where the current ATH lies. Since then, the price has retraced a bit, but the market continues to look primed.
Amid all this, altcoins were thriving. Ethereum is up by around 17% in the past seven days, which is also true for BNB. Ripple exploded by 60%, but the show was stolen by the one and only meme coin – DOGE.
Dogecoin increased by a jaw-dropping 530% in the past week, and it set a new all-time high above $0.45. It is currently the fifth biggest cryptocurrency by means of total market capitalization, surpassing the likes of Tether, Cardano, and Polkadot. Its total valuation is also higher than traditional finance behemoth Barclays, as well as other companies such as Motorola.
In any case, altcoin season is booming, with the majority of large-cap cryptocurrency charting double-digit increases in the past week. This has reduced the BTC dominance towards 51%, despite the fact that bitcoin is also up by around 6% in the same period.
Elsewhere, positive news came from PayPal’s CEO, who said that the company could reach upwards of $200 million in volume in the next few months. The online payment processor recently launched a crypto checkout service that allows its users to spend their cryptocurrency at millions of merchants.
Larry Fink, the CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, said that crypto has the potential of becoming a “great asset class,” which is surely a good thing. Regardless, the markets are particularly volatile, and it’s very exciting to see how the next week will shape up.
Market Cap: $2,229B | 24H Vol: 287B | BTC Dominance: 51.7%
BTC: $61,650 (+5.49%) | ETH: $2,426 (+17.03%) | XRP: $1.65 (+63.73%)
The Crypto Headlines You Better Not Miss
MicroStrategy Directors Now Receive Board Fees in Bitcoin. In yet another major pro-Bitcoin move, Micheal Saylor’s MicroStrategy made the decision to start paying its non-employee directors board fees in BTC. The company continues with its positive stance towards the cryptocurrency as its total holdings near 100,000 bitcoins.
Coinbase COIN Starts Trading at a Price Around $400 and Over $100 Billion Valuation. Coinbase, the leading US-based cryptocurrency exchange, is now a publicly-traded company on Nasdaq. Its shares are under the COIN ticker and opened at a price of $381 per share, putting a total market capitalization of the company of around $100 billion upon listing.
PayPal’s Crypto Service Could Reach $200 Million in Volume in a Few Months, Says CEO. The CEO of the world’s leading online payment processor PayPal – Dan Schulman, said that his company can reach a cryptocurrency volume of around $200 million in a few months. This comes shortly after they launched a crypto checkout service.
Crypto Can Become a Great Asset Class, Says BlackRock CEO. Larry Fink, the CEO of the biggest asset management company in the world, BlackRock, said that cryptocurrencies can become a great asset class. He also said that he’s fascinated and encouraged by the number of people focusing on it.
Ethereum’s Berlin Hard Fork is Live, but Sync Issues Are Reported. Ethereum’s network went through a planned hard fork called Berlin. The update is already live, but it also caused some node syncing issues for some users which resulted in a few exchanges halting deposits and withdrawals temporarily.
Grayscale Total Assets Value Soars Above $50 Billion Following the Recent Bitcoin ATH. The biggest cryptocurrency asset manager, Grayscale, achieved a serious milestone amid the increasing prices this week. Its total assets under management topped $50 billion for the first time.
This week we have a chart analysis of Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, Binance Coin, and Cardano – click here for the full price analysis.
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Cryptocurrency charts by TradingView.
How Litecoin Can Follow DOGE To The Moon And Reach $2,000
With a 181.5% increase in the 24-hour chart, Dogecoin (DOGE) is breaking every resistance towards a new all-time high. On the other hand, Litecoin is showing strong momentum and, according to a trader, it could follow DOGE’s performance.
Investing App Robinhood offers its users the possibility to trade with 6 cryptocurrencies: DOGE, Bitcoin, Ethereum Classic, Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin SV, and Litecoin. Trader and analyst “Pentoshi” believes DOGE’s current price action is coming from this platform.
However, Litecoin has the “best-looking chart” and is amongst the cheapest to buy in Robinhood, said Pentoshi. These two factors could converge with DOGE and LTC mining cycles. Pentoshi added:
On top of that. $Doge and $LTC is mined together. They are United by blood. Miners can take profits to LTC and it’s cheap compared to the Robinhood traders other options.
Pentoshi further added that PayPal’s crypto services have benefit LTC’s price. In LTC/BTC trading pair, Pentoshi set support in 444,976 satoshis and is aiming at 996,579 satoshis in the long run. The trader added the following on DOGE and LTC mining cycles:
$DOGE and $LTC are mined together. Both have the same cycles shown here: They are cyclical and repeat their fractals. Litecoin is just starting! It’s all there when you zoom out. History simply repeats.
You love to see it pic.twitter.com/zBr1PZ8Ix0
— Pentoshi 🐧wont DM you ltc to 1000 (@Pentosh1) April 16, 2021
Litecoin (LTC) on route to $2,000?
Data from IntoTheBlock shows LTC indicators like Net Network Growth, metric to measure Litcoin’s “true” network growth, Large Transactions, Concentration, and others are bullish. The Futures Market Momentum is also bullish due to the increase in volume and open interest.
The metric In/Out of the Money Around Price indicates further appreciation and support for LTC around $268 and $287. Over 100,000 LTC addresses bought almost 2 million LTC near these levels.
In support of the bullish case, crypto trader Kaleo said LTC’s price to $1,000 is “imminent” and even set a further target toward $2,000.
— K A L E O (@CryptoKaleo) April 15, 2021
LTC is trading at $313 with a 12.9% profit in the 24-hour chart. In the weekly and monthly chart, LTC has 38.6% and 56.1% profits, respectively.
Data from CryptoQuant indicates a rise in Coinbase premium over the past day. In this platform, there are already orders to sell LTC at $550 as analyst Eric Thies commented. Therefore, Litecoin investors seem to have enough reasons to remain bullish.
— Eric Thies 📈 (@KingThies) April 16, 2021
Trading apps usurp TikTok in popularity
Two trading apps have risen to the top of Apple’s App Store in recent days. Robinhood holds the number one position, with Coinbase in second, at time of publication on Friday. In third: popular social media platform TikTok. YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat hold the fourth, fifth and sixth positions respectively.
One possible conclusion? Folks are now more interested in swapping crypto and financial assets than they are in interacting on various social media platforms — a conclusion noted by CNBC in an article on Friday.
Robinhood saw significant coverage in January when the company halted purchases for GameStop stock. The decision came after the asset’s price spiked in tandem with activity from a Reddit group known as Wallstreetbets.
Second-place app Coinbase has also hit many headlines this year, especially in recent weeks in anticipation of its direct stock listing. Chatter rose as the stock, under the ticker COIN, was listed by Nasdaq on Wednesday.
Crypto and stocks largely entered the retail spotlight after they both crashed in March 2020. Emerging from the event, both markets posted recoveries, with the crypto markets going on to reach new all-time highs. Bitcoin’s price has since more than tripled its record high from 2017.
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