Breaking ChatGPT’s Bitcoin FUD #4: Security Vulnerabilities - part 2...
We continue the next part of Vlad Costea's "Breaking FUD" series, where Vlad goes to work on the 4th "top threat" to Bitcoin according to ChatGPT. People mistakenly think Bitcoin can be hacked. Bitcoin is the most secure computer network and keeps getting more secure.
This excerpt is from the e-magazine issue "BTCTKVR 3: Breaking FUD", released May 2023. I'll keep posting the rest of this e-magazine over the coming days. We'll have 8 more parts of this series to go.
"Breaking ChatGPT’s Bitcoin FUD #4 - part 2:
BRUTE FORCE, SHA256
As for BIP39 seed phrases, there are 2,048 words and 12/24 combinations of them. For the sake of convenience, let’s assume a basic 12-word setup. In order to guess a random one, you have 204812 (or 2132) possibilities. To quote Reddit moderator BashCo, that number is one in 115 quattuorvigintillion, 792 trevigintiilion, 89 duovigintillion, 237 unvigintillion, 316 vigintillion, 195 novemdecillion, 423 octodecillion, 570 septendecillion, 985 sexdecillion, 8 quindecillion, 687 quattuordecillion, 907 tredecillion, 853 duodecillion, 269 undecillion, 984 decillion, 665 nonillion, 640 octillion, 564 septillion, 39 sextillion, 457 quintillion, 584 quadrillion, 7 trillion, 913 billion, 129 million, 639 thousand and 936.
If you’re certain that one of the 2,048 words must be the first one, then your odds turn into 204811 – because in BIP39, you can have words getting repeated in the same setup. And if you have the first 10 words in the correct order and only need your 11th and 12th one, you only have 20,482 possibilities – which already makes it brute forceable today with a regular computer processor. So take good care of your seed phrase and, if you feel comfortable about it, add a passphrase on top from outside of the BIP39 dictionary. This will greatly improve your security, but might only become problematic if you forget/ lose your passphrase.
But generally, as Peter Todd and BIP39 co-creator Pavol “Stick” Rusnak pointed out, it’s very impractical and akin to stating that you can park 500 cars on a football pitch. Peter’s suggestion was to delete it altogether, as the efficient type to attack BIP39 seed phrases is to brute force the private key it generates.
Yes, quantum computing might become a threat in the future. But this future is very distant: as of March 2023, the most powerful quantum computer in the world is IBM’s Osprey – a machine that touts 433 physical qubits. As pointed out by a 2022 research paper which got published in the AVS Quantum Science journal, a computer that aims to break Bitcoin’s elliptic curve public key cryptography within 24 hours requires 13 × 10⁶ qubits. In other words, quantum computers need to become thousands of times more powerful to break Bitcoin.
So far, the technological leap in quantum computing slightly exceeds Moore’s Law. For prediction purposes, let’s use this model to assume that the pattern continues and the amount of qubits keeps on doubling every 2 years. In order to get from 433 to 13 × 10⁶, quantum computers need to become 30,023 times more powerful. That’s at least 20 more years before we should seriously start to get worried.
It took 24 years of research and development to go from 2 qubits to 433 qubits. How long until we reach 10,000 qubits? Probably a few more decades. At 10,000 qubits and some very specific physical conditions (a code cycle time of 1 μs = 1 microsecond = one millionth of a second), a reaction time of 10 μs, and a physical gate error of 10-3), a quantum computer will be able to steal the coins from an arbitrary Bitcoin wallet in 10 days. However, cryptography will also improve tremendously by then and Bitcoin might migrate towards a better model that makes brute forcing so difficult that quantum computers need a lot more time to catch up.
Upgrading to quantum-resistant keys only requires a soft fork which can be activated by a majority of nodes or miners. So this whole discussion might just turn out to be a paper tiger – or an unworthy piece of FUD.
Now that we have got these two very complex and extremely expensive attacks out of the way, it is time to focus on the most probable ones: the social attacks. In Bitcoin, we like to say “don’t trust, verify”. However, establishing trust systems which remove doubt about potential maliciousness from developers is one very serious attack vector.
The easiest way to mitigate any kind of attack is to remain conservative about code: don’t update to the latest version unless you verify it beforehand or pay someone else to do it for you. And if you do neither, at least make sure that enough people with adversarial incentives have verified the new code. When the stakes are so high that the global financial system is under threat, it’s safe to assume that developers are under a lot of pressure and might make mistakes or get compromised.
This is not an argument for ossification, though: Bitcoin is not complete as a project and refinements are still necessary. From adding privacy to making transactions smaller and all the way to providing resistance against quantum computing attacks, there’s still a lot to do. My argument is against being reckless with untested technology whose consequences are not entirely understood, but not against innovation.
Nonetheless, while pursuing innovation, we should not surrender verification to urgency. As a community, we should encourage Bitcoin developers to prepare options before the threat becomes imminent: models for quantum-resistant elliptic curve cryptography, scalable privacy, and so on. Some of these solutions are already being tested with market incentives on other networks – what matters the most is that Bitcoin developers pay attention to the legitimate technological improvements, refine what’s already out there, and bring out proposals that everyone must debate. Also, we should never neglect our roles as sovereign node operators and miners – we are the ones who choose which code we run and Bitcoin clients can work with some minimalistic specs. Not everything that’s been added to Core is necessary, but the well-tested features provide useful optimizations.
Last but not least, we must talk about the security of every individual Bitcoin user. This, most likely, is the primary type of FUD that ChatGPT expressed when it mentioned hackers and malicious actors. Anything between keyloggers that register and broadcast your computer keyboard inputs (which may contain your Bitcoin Core passphrases or BIP39 seed phrase) to affinity scams and physical attacks is increasingly more likely to happen as the price of BTC gets higher."
Keep an eye out for the last part of this destruction of ChatGPT-created Bitcoin FUD.
I'm Charles Polanski and I seek to turn the Bitcoin-curious into Bitcoin investors and enthusiasts.
Thanks to Vlad for making this excerpt available to freely spread.
Find him on Twitter: @TheVladCostea
"Your Bitcoin influencer's influencer."
Host of the Bitcoin Takeover Podcast
Writer of the open source @btctkvr mag.
Check out his work: http://linktr.ee/btctkvr