Browsing the MIT Technology Review, I recently found an article on the potential threat that quantum computing means for the bitcoin protocol in its current form. This article is in fact a review of a paper that appeared last October on the arxiv preprint server. If you use your favorite search engine and search for combinations of words like quantum computing, threat, bitcoin and cryptography, you find many articles on that topic with a greatly varying degree of accuracy – so it is definitely worth taking a look at that paper and see what it really says.
In the bitcoin protocol, computing power enters the picture at two vital points. The first point is the mining process. Recall that in order to create a new block, a mining node has to solve a mathematical challenge called the proof-of-work which is to adjust a part of the new block – the nonce – in such a way that the first few hexadecimal digits of the block hash become zero. The number of digits that need to be zero is controlled by the so called difficulty, a parameter of the network which is dynamically adjusted based on the mining rate, aimining at keeping the mining rate constant at roughly 6 blocks per hour.
So finding the nonce effectively amounts to inverting the used hash function (a double SHA256 hash). Currently, the only (at least publicly) known approach is brute force – simply try out a large number of values for the nonce in parallel and stop when you find a value that solves the puzzle.
On the site blockchain.info, you can find, among much additional information, a graphical history of the difficulty over time. At the time of writing, the development since the birth of the bitcoin looks as follows.
It appears that the difficulty has increased exponentially over the last years (the same web page also offers a version of that graph with a logarithmic scale which demonstrates that starting at 2015, the difficulty did in fact develop essentially exponentially over time). This can be used to estimate the number of hashes per second that are computed by all miners in the network together, and on blockchain.info, there is a nice graph illustrating the result. At the moment, the hash rate is estimated to be roughly 25.000 tera hashes per second, i.e. 2,5 * 1016 hashes per second, growing exponentially as well.
This dramatic increase in computing power devoted to mining is not just the result of more mining nodes participating in the network. It is also due to an evolution of the technology used to mine bitcoin. In 2010, miners started to use graphical processing units (GPUs), followed by FPGAs about one year later and finally by ASICS, i.e. custom manufactured integrated circuits which can only do one thing – computing hashes – but do this amazingly fast.
In , the authors investigate the question at which point in time quantum computing might be developed to the point where a quantum computer can solve the same challenge at a speed that is comparable to currently existing devices. Essentially, their conclusion is that it will easily take between 10 and fifteen years for this to pose a real threat for the bitcoin network. They estimate that quantum computers that can implement the required algorithms will not appear before 2018, and even then the speed of the quantum gates will be much lower than the speed of the custom built ASICS so that it will take in addition at least ten years until a single quantum computers reaches the range of hashing power that the entire bitcoin network represents. Thus, it is unlikely that we will soon see that a single quantum computer is able to run an attack against the bitcoin network based on hashing power.
However, there is a second threat that is much more realistic, targeting the second point in the bitcoin protocol where computing power is essential – the signature algorithm based on elliptic curve cryptography.
In fact, elliptic curve cryptography is based on the difficulty to calculate a discrete logarithm on a classical computer, and was one of the first problems for which it could be shown (see ) that it could be solved using a quantum computer much faster, i.e. polynomial in the number of inputs.
In , a few attack scenarios are described and one specific scenario is analysed in detail. To understand this scenario, suppose that Alice is creating a transaction to transfer bitcoin to Bob. When she uses the standard P2PKH signature scheme, that transaction will contain the hash value of Bobs public key, but the full public key of Alice. So when this transaction appears on the network, the public key is known. If an attacker is able to solve the discrete logarithm that is required to derive the private key from the public key (see this post for the relation between public and private key), the attacker can use the private key to create an own transaction to spend the UTXO that Alice is using. That attack would have to be executed before the original transaction is added to a block, thus within less than 10 minutes.
The authors then determine how many qubits a quantum computer would need to solve the discrete logarithm and again predict, based on the current rate of improvement of quantum computing technology, how long it would take until a first quantum computer becomes available that can solve this in less than 10 minutes. Different scenarios are considered, but in the most aggressive scenario, this will happen in 2027, i.e. less than ten years from now.
So the conclusion is that the most serious threat to the bitcoin protocol in its current form comes from the anticipated ability of quantum computers to quickly break the ECDSA algorithm in less than ten years from now. Fortunately, the authors also propose countermeasures. In fact, there are public key signature algorithms that appear to be quantum safe, i.e. for which no quantum algorithm is known which can solve the underlying mathematical challenge faster than on traditional hardware. So it is possible to adapt the bitcoin protocol in a way that makes it less vulnerable to attacks by quantum computers.
Thus the key take aways from the paper seem to be that quantum computing will most likely not kill the bitcoin protocol, but force it to change – and that we still have a few years to go even under optimistic assumptions on the rate of further improvement of quantum computing technology.
1. L. Cocco, M. Marchesi, Modeling and Simulation of the Economics of Mining in the Bitcoin Market, PLoS One 11 (10) (2016)
2. D. Aggarwal et al., Quantum attacks on Bitcoin, and how to protect against them
3. P. W. Shor. Polynomial-Time Algorithms for Prime Factorization and Discrete Logarithms on a Quantum Computer. SIAM Review, 41(2):303–332, 1999 (see also the preprint on the arxiv)