Messaging firm Line launches a dedicated crypto fund

Messaging company Line is continuing to burrow deep into the crypto space after it announced the launch of a $10 million investment fund.

The fund will be operated by Line’s Korea-based blockchain subsidiary Unblock Corporation, which is tasked with research, education and other blockchain-related services. The fund will be called Unblock Ventures and it’ll initially have a capital pool of $10 million but Line said that is likely to increase over time.

The company said the fund will be focused on early-stage startup investments, but it didn’t provide further details.

Line is listed in Tokyo and on the NYSE. This fund makes it one of the first publicly traded companies to create a dedicated crypto investment vehicle. The objective, it said, is “to boost the development and adoption of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.”

Line claims nearly 200 million users of its messaging app, which is particularly popular in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. The company also offers a range of connected services that include payment, social games, ride-hailing, food delivery and more.

This marks Line’s second major crypto move this year following the launch of its BitBox exchange last month. It isn’t available in the U.S. or Japan right now but Line envisages closes ties with its messaging service and other features further down the line.

These moves into crypto come despite some serious downturn in the valuation of the space this year following record highs in January which saw the value of one Bitcoin touch nearly $20,000 and Ethereum, among others, surged. In the months since then, however, many cryptocurrencies have seen their valuations decline. This week, Ethereum dropped below $300 in what is its first major price crisis. Bitcoin has, for many years, risen and fallen although January’s valuations took the extremes to a new level.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Ethereum’s falling price splits the crypto community

Hello And Welcome Back To The Latest Edition Of All The Cryptos Are Getting Rekt Right Now.

Crypto bloodbaths have become fairly common in 2018 — mainly because of the insane growth in 2017 — but we’ve not covered them all because they are so numerous and often include so-called ‘flash crashes’ or small drops, but the fall happening today is worth noting for several wider reasons.

Primarily that’s because this is a major test for Ether — the token associated with the Ethereum Foundation that is the second largest cryptocurrency by volume — has been on a downward spiral with little sign of change.

Ether, which is the preferred platform of choice for most developers building on the blockchain, is down nearly 17 percent over the past day. That’s erased billions of dollars in paper (crypto) value as the bear market for cryptocurrencies continues to pull markets south.

The drop also marks the first time ever that the price of an Ether has fallen below its valuation over one year: one Ether is worth $266 right now at the time of writing, versus $304 on August 14 2017. The token has been steadily falling since early May, when its peak value was $808, and as the lynchpin for many ICO project tokens, its demise has sent the value of most other tokens down, too.

Just looking at Coinmarketcap.com this morning, all but two of the top 100 tokens are down over the last 24 hours with many losing 10-25 percent of their value over the past day. Bitcoin, too, has dropped below $6,000, having topped $8,000 for a time last month.

Ether’s plummet below $300 has sparked a mixed debate among those in the crypto community. The token had been held as visionary, an improvement on Bitcoin that gives developers a platform to build on — whether it be decentralized apps, decentralized systems or more — but that hasn’t been reflected in in this months-long price retreat.

Certainly, two founders who spoke TechCrunch and have held ICOs expressed a belief that Ether “needs to find some price stability” to allow the focus to become about product and not just ‘get rich’ speculation. Of course, it helps that the two founders and many of those who held token sales have long since sold the Ether or Bitcoin they raised in exchange for fiat currency. Indeed, if their token sale was last year, the chances are they got a lot more real-world cash than they initially bargained for or would get now.

But still, the idea of consistency is shared by others who are in crypto professionally. That includes investors like Kenrick Drijkoningen, who is in the midst of raising a $10 million fund for LuneX, a spinout of Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures.

In an interview last week, Drijkoningen told TechCrunch that raising a fund and doing deals in a ‘low tide’ market like now beats attempting to do the same amid a frothy period with hype and peak valuations — one Ether was worth nearly $1,400 in January, for example. A number of others VCs have long said that, ultimately, stability is good for the ecosystem.

Vitalik Buterin is the creator of Ethereum

But, on the other side, there are more pessimistic voices.

Among some investors canvassed by TechCrunch, the sense is that with the downturn of the ICO funding boom that fueled much of Ethereum’s rise, there may be less incentive to hold as the broader market’s interest in the cryptocurrency wanes.

For one Bitcoin bull, the intrinsic value of Bitcoin as an immutable, decentralized ledger acts as a more powerful draw than the perceived mutability and centralization that the Ethereum platform offers.

“People are also beginning to understand the unique value of an immutable, decentralized ledger, and recognize that Ethereum is not that,” the investor wrote in an email.

Another long-term problem that Ethereum faces, according to this investor, is that the promise of decentralized apps backed by the token is yet to be released. Crypto Kitties, a smash hit earlier this year, has faded and now there’s competition as Bitcoin’s Lightning Network is adding nodes and apps — referred to as LApps — which can operate in a similar but leverage the Bitcoin ledger.

It’s still early days, of course, and markets will always rise and fall, but this is the first big test for Ether and Ethereum. Beyond the sport of price speculation, it’ll be worth watching to see where this heads next.

Note: One of the authors of this post — Jon Russell — owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

The quantum meltdown of encryption

The world stands at the cusp of one of the greatest breakthroughs in information technology. Huge leaps forward in all fields of computer science, from data analysis to machine learning, will result from this breakthrough. But like all of man’s technological achievements, from the combustion engine to nuclear power, harnessing quantum comes with potential dangers as well. Quantum computers have created a slew of unforeseen vulnerabilities in the very infrastructure that keeps the digital sphere safe.

The underlying assumption behind nearly all encryption ciphers used today is that their complexity precludes any attempt by hackers to break them, as it would take years for even our most advanced conventional computers to do so. But quantum computing will change all of that.

Quantum computers promise to bring computational power leaps and bounds ahead of our most advanced machines. Recently, scientists at Google began testing their cutting edge 72 qubit quantum computer. The researchers expect to demonstrate with this machine quantum supremacy, or the ability to perform a calculation impossible with traditional computers.

Chink in the Armor

Today’s standard encryption techniques are based on what’s called Public Key Infrastructure or PKI, a set of protocols brought to the world of information technology in the 1970’s. PKI works by generating a complex cipher through random numbers that only the intended recipient of a given message, the one in possession of the private key, can decode.

As a system of encoding data, PKI was sound and reliable. But in order to implement it as a method to be used in the real world, there was still one question that needed to be answered: how could individuals confirm the identity of a party reaching out and making a request to communicate? This vulnerability left the door open for cybercriminals to impersonate legitimate servers, or worse, insert themselves into a conversation between users and intercept communications between them, in what’s known as a Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attack.

The industry produced a solution to this authentication problem in the form of digital certificates, electronic documents the contents of which can prove senders are actually who they claim to be. The submission of certificates at the initiation of a session allows the parties to know who it is they are about to communicate with. Today, trusted third party companies called Certificate Authorities, or CAs, create and provide these documents that are relied upon by everyone from private users to the biggest names in tech.

The problem is that certificates themselves rely on public-key cryptographic functions for their reliability, which, in the not too distant future, will be vulnerable to attack by quantum machines. Altered certificates could then be used by cyber criminals to fake their identities, completely undermining certificates as a method of authentication.

Intel’s 17-qubit superconducting test chip for quantum computing has unique features for improved connectivity and better electrical and thermo-mechanical performance. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

 

Decentralizing the Threat

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to get creative when it comes to encryption.

When Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity is still unknown, revealed his revolutionary idea in a 2008 white paper, he also introduced the beginnings of a unique peer-to-peer authentication system that today we call blockchain. The brilliantly innovative blockchain system at its core is an open ledger that records transactions between two parties in a permanent way without needing third-party authentication. Blockchain provided the global record-keeping network that has kept Nakamoto’s digital currency safe from fraudsters. Blockchain is based on the concept of decentralization, spreading the authentication process across a large body of users. No single piece of data can be altered without the alteration of all other blocks, which would require the collusion of the majority of the entire network.

For years, blockchain and Bitcoin remained one and the same. About five years ago, innovators in the industry began to realize that blockchain could be used for more than just securing cryptocurrency. Altering the original system designed for Bitcoin could produce programs to be applied in a wide range of industries, from healthcare, to insurance, to political elections. Gradually, new decentralized systems began to emerge such as those of Ripple and Litecoin. In 2015, one of the original contributors to the Bitcoin codebase Vitalik Buterin released his Ethereum project also based on blockchain. What these new platforms added to the picture was the ability to record new types of data in addition to currency exchanges, such as loans and contractual agreements.

The advantages of the blockchain concept quickly became apparent. By 2017, nearly fifteen percent of all financial institutions in the world were using blockchain to secure aspects of their operations. The number of industries incorporating decentralized systems continues to grow.

Digital security key concept background with binary data code

Saving PKI

The best solution for protecting encryption from our ever-growing processing power is integrating decentralization into Public Key Infrastructure.

What this means essentially, is that instead of keeping digital certificates in one centralized location, which makes them vulnerable to being hacked and tampered with, they would be spread out in a world-wide ledger, one fundamentally impervious to alteration. A hacker attempting to modify certificates would be unable to pull off such a fraud, as it would mean changing data stored on enumerable diversified blocks spread out across the cyber sphere.

Decentralization has already been proven as a highly effective way of protecting recorded data from tampering. Similarly, using a blockchain-type system to replace the single entity Certificate Authority, can keep our digital certificates much safer. It is in fact one of the only foreseeable solutions to keep the quantum revolution from undermining the foundation of PKI.

 

Bitcoin passes $7K bringing all 100 top coins up with it

Bitcoin is moving up, and it’s taking 99 of its best friends along for the ride. In the last 24 hours, every one of the top 100 coins by market cap was in the green with 84 of them posting gains of over 5 percent. At the time of writing, Bitcoin was sitting at $7,310, up 14 percent in the last 7 days and up almost 10 percent in the last 24 hours.

CoinMarketCap Top 100

Bitcoin itself crossed the $7,000 mark for the first time in the last month, an indication but no sure sign that it might be shaking off a summer slump that’s seen prices plunge below $6,000 on more than one occasion. Bitcoin is quickly moving back toward early June norms around $7,500 though may meet resistance at $7,750. In March, Bitcoin dipped below the $10,000 mark and it’s been unable to mount a rally back above that level in the months since.

screenshot via CoinMarketCap

They may not last, but mid-July’s gains aren’t just a Bitcoin story. Out of the top 100 coins, 24 coins made double digit gains in the last 24 hours, including 0x and Zcash, two coins recently tapped by Coinbase as potential assets that the platform is “exploring.” Big Bitcoin jumps normally lead the charge for altcoin growth, though seeing its peers so uniformly follow suit isn’t something you see every time the most prominent coin’s price shoots up.

So why is the price up? Potentially all of none of these reasons:

As with any price shift, it’s worth remembering that headlines on any one continent are just one rumble among the many invisible international seismic signals sending coins up or down on a given day. As one reads the tea leaves, it’s worth remembering that correlation ≠ causation when it comes to big price moves. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the tea.

Disclosure: The author holds a very small position in some cryptocurrencies, mostly because it seemed like a fun idea back in 2013 and then she forgot about it. Regrettably, it is not enough for a Lambo.

Russian hackers used bitcoin to fund election interference, so prepare for FUD

The indictment filed today against 12 Russians accused of, among other things, hacking the DNC and undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign also notes that the alleged hackers paid for their nefarious deeds with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. This unsavory application of one of tech’s current darlings will almost certainly be wielded against it by opportunists of all stripes.

It is perhaps the most popular and realistic argument against cryptocurrency that it enables anonymous transactions globally and at scale, no exception made for Russian intelligence or ISIS. So the news that a prominent and controversial technology was used to fund state-sponsored cyber attacks will not be passed over by its critics.

You can expect bluster on cable news and some sharp words from lawmakers, who will also probably issue some kind of public denouncement of cryptocurrencies and call for more stringent regulation. It’s only natural: their constituencies will hear that Russians are using bitcoin to hack the election systems and take it at face value. They have to say something.

But this knee-jerk criticism is misguided and hypocritical for several reasons.

First is that it’s not as anonymous and mysterious as critics make out. The details in the indictment actually provide an interesting example (far from the first) of the limits of cryptocurrency’s ability to obscure its users’ activities.

The painstaking research of the special investigator’s team revealed the approximate amounts and methods involved, and although there is a veneer of anonymity in that addresses are not inherently tied to identities, it is far from impossible to establish ownership. Not that they didn’t try, as the indictment shows:

The Defendants conspired to launder the equivalent of more than $95,000 through a web of transactions structured to capitalize on the perceived anonymity of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

They also enlisted the assistance of one or more third-party exchangers who facilitated layers transactions through digital currency exchange platforms providing heightened anonymity.

But the process of laundering, after all, becomes rather difficult when there is an immutable, peer-maintained record of every penny being pushed around. Small slip-ups in the team’s operational security allowed investigators to tie, for example, an email address used to access a given bitcoin wallet with the one used to pay for a VPN.

[U]sing funds in a bitcoin address, the Conspirators purchased a VPN account, which they later used to log into the @Guccifer_2 Twitter account. The remaining funds from that bitcoin address were then used […] to lease a Malaysian server that hosted the dcleaks.com website.

It’s likely that the very same distributed ledger technology that allows for anonymous international payments in the first place also creates an invaluable investigative tool for those savvy enough to take advantage of it. So although bitcoin has its shady side, it’s far from perfect secrecy, especially when exposed to the privileges of a federal investigative team.

The second reason the criticism will be hollow is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of new capabilities for those who wish to keep secret their activities online.

There are established methods used by nation-states and garden-variety hackers and criminals alike that minimize or eliminate the possibility of tracking. Money laundering is performed at huge volumes worldwide and there are shady banks, loopholes and puppet organizations peppered across the globe.

Cryptocurrencies are convenient for paying for things online because there are a number of vendors (dwindling, but they exist) that accept it straight, or if one is not available it is reasonably liquid and can be shifted easily. I feel sure that our own intelligence services are making good use of it.

On that note is the third reason this FUD will be risible: If we are going to address the problem of dark money influencing politics, using bitcoin for hacking activities doesn’t even amount to a rounding error and it is cynical prestidigitation that makes it appear more than such.

I won’t belabor the point, because it is surely topmost in many an American’s mind that cash funneled through Super PACs and offshore accounts, backroom deals and stock trades, favors for lobbyists and corporate “donators” and 20 other forms of pay-for-play in Washington are more of a clear and present danger than a handful of Russian operatives ineffectually obscuring peanuts payments for hosting fees and bribes.

Perhaps the administration would prefer scripture: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

If anything these indictments are evidence only that cryptocurrency is here to stay, usable by you, or me, or an rival nation-state, or our own — just like any other financial instrument.

Chat app Line to launch crypto exchange in July but it won’t cover US or Japan

Messaging app firm Line has confirmed it will launch a cryptocurrency exchange called BitBox next month.

The company said back in January that it planned to enter the crypto space with an exchange, but today it said that the BitBox service won’t be available for users in the U.S. and Japan — that’s presumably down to regulatory uncertainty.

What it will include, however, is support for trading 30 tokens — Line is only revealing big names like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash, and Litecoin so far — and a 0.1 percent trading fee. Line said it has picked the tokens following “an extensive screening process” which saw an internal commitment asses what on the market represents “the most reliable and safest trading [options] for users.”

Bitbox will be available worldwide and in 15 languages. It isn’t yet clear whether it will include an option to buy or sell tokens using fiat — a key ramp to getting new money into crypto — or whether this will just be token-to-token trading.

Line has around 200 million monthly active users and it has expanded into adjacent services such as taxis on-demand, music streaming, mobile payment and more, so this foray could represent a step towards accepting crypto for its other services in the future. But the exclusion of U.S. and Japan-based users is a major caveat.

Japan is Line’s largest market for revenue and users, so by excluding the country, it is severely limiting the potential impact that Bitbox can have.

Nonetheless, the company is need of something fresh to revitalize its business in the wake of increasing competition from Facebook, which operates WhatsApp and Messenger, the world’s most popular messaging apps with over one billion monthly users each.

Prior its $1.1 billion U.S.-Japan IPO in 2016, Line had targeted a global audience via its messaging service — which pioneered the concept of stickers — and a connected games business. Its international expansion didn’t go according to plan, however, and the company refocused efforts on its four core markets of Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia, which account for 168 million of its active users.

In those markets, it offers a range of localized services that include video streamingmanga cartoonsshoppingride-hailing and other on-demand services. Last year, it began to sell smart hardware and AI to offer its own cartoony alternative to Amazon’s Echo range and Google Home devices. In some markets, it also offers a Line-branded mobile phone/data service.

There’s plenty of pressure, however. Facebook’s global popularity makes Messenger an option for most internet users on the planet while the company is busy in other areas. WhatsApp recently moved into business solutions that allow companies to correspond with users via its service, and it is tipped to add payments soon. CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to look into whether Facebook can make use of blockchain technology and earlier this year he set up a dedicated division that is headed by David Marcus, the ex-lead for Messenger and former CEO of PayPal.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Korean crypto exchange Bithumb says it lost over $30M following a hack

Just weeks after Korean crypto exchange Coinrail lost $40 million through an alleged hack, another in the crypto-mad country — Bithumb — has claimed hackers made off with over $30 million in cryptocurrency.

Coinrail may be one of Korea’s smaller exchanges, but Bithumb is far larger. The exchange is one of the world’s top ten ranked based on trading of Ethereum and Bitcoin Cash, and top for newly-launched EOS, according to data from Coinmarketcap.com.

In a now-deleted tweet, Bithumb said today that 35 billion won of tokens — around $31 million — were snatched. It didn’t provide details of the attack, but it did say it will cover any losses for its users. The company has temporarily frozen deposits and trading while it is in the process of “changing our wallet system” following the incident.

Days prior to the hack, Bithumb said on Twitter that it was “transferring all of asset to the cold wallet to build up the security system and upgrade” its database. It isn’t clear whether that move was triggered by the attack — in which case it happened days ago — or whether it might have been a factor that enabled it.

A tweet sent days before Bithumb said it had been hacked

There’s often uncertainty around alleged hacks, with some in the crypto community claiming an inside job for most incidents. In this case, reports from earlier this month that Bithumb was hit by a 30 billion won tax bill from the Korean government will certainly raise suspicions. Without an independent audit or third-party report into the incident, however, it is hard to know exactly what happened.

That said, one strong takeaway, once again, is that people who buy crypto should store their tokens in their own private wallet (ideally with a hardware key for access) not on an exchange where they could be pinched by an attacker. In this case, Bithumb is big enough to cover the losses, but it isn’t always that way and securely holding tokens avoids potential for trouble.

Bitcoin price falls but doesn’t flatline

Those not looking at the Bitcoin markets lately will either gasp or smile. Bitcoin, down from its all time high of around $19,000, is now floating at $6,785 as of this writing. To many this means that either the Bitcoin experiment is over or, to many more, that it has just begun.

There are plenty of folks who will have been hurt by this crash. I was speaking with a Romanian entrepreneur about his friend who bought BTC on a credit card only to find that he is wildly underwater. The volatility is also frightening to folks who might have gotten in on the last run up only to find themselves back at the start. I pity the poor waiter who a friend saw making Bitcoin trades at $18,000 during his shift. I hope he sold.

But there are no signs that the cryptocurrency train is stopping. Startups around the world are all examining – and doing – ICOs. Plenty of early crypto miners and buyers still have enough cash to play around in all sorts of ways. Bitcoin naysayers like R3 are figuring out that bankers didn’t want to hear “blockchain, not bitcoin” after all once they realized that bitcoin, like their beloved equities and commodities, was just another place for them to play.

And people are still active in the market. That’s important. As this Coindesk analysis notes, the markets will be deeply volatile during this stretch and could remain so as risk-taking buyers snap up coin on the downswing.

Don’t believe me? This is the seven day trading volume for almost all of the exchanges.

Ultimately these moves make up one of the most interesting forms of intergenerational and international wealth transfer we’ve ever seen. Whereas this wealth transfer once came in the form of inheritances and joint ventures, cryptocurrencies enable an almost instantaneous partners ship between the old and young and the near and far. It’s a fascinating economic time and I doubt it will let up any time soon.

Sometimes the price goes up, sometimes it goes down. That’s the best advice any smart person can give anyone in any market. However, the signs point less to a flatline and more to a gut-wrenching EKG full of ups and downs. The patient, however, is not dead yet.

Korean crypto exchange Coinrail loses over $40M in tokens following a hack

Another day, another crypto hack. This time it’s Korea, the crypto-mad Asian country, where an exchange called Coinrail lost more than $40 million in altcoins, ICO-issued tokens that aren’t bitcoin or Ethereum, after it was hit by an apparent attack over the weekend.

Korea may be a hot spot for crypto investment, but Coinrail is one of its smaller exchanges, just about ranking inside the world’s top 90 based on trading volume, according to coinmarketcap.com. Nonetheless, even the smaller exchanges have plenty of coins, as the size of this heist illustrates.

Most notably, the hackers got away with $19.5 million-worth of NPXS tokens that were issued by payment project Pundi X’s ICO. Added to that they scored a further $13.8 million from Aston X, an ICO project building a platform to decentralize documents, $5.8 million in tokens for Dent, a mobile data ICO, and over $1.1 million Tron, a much-hyped project originating from China.

That’s according to a wallet address that has been identified as belonging to the alleged attacker, who also got hold of smaller volumes of a further five tokens from Coinrail.

In all the cases, the companies issuing the tokens themselves were not hacked, the tokens that were nabbed belong to Coinrail users.

It isn’t clear how, or indeed whether, Coinrail will go about compensating its customers — Japan’s Coincheck refunded its customers following a high-profile attack earlier this year — but some of the ICO projects are taking steps in response.

Pundi was hit the hardest, claiming that some three percent of its total volume of tokens was impacted by this attack. It said it has frozen the tokens that were stolen and it has ceased trading of its tokens across all exchanges to help with the post-attack investigation, which it said includes the Korean police. NPER, which had around $860,000-worth of tokens taken from Coinrail, said it had frozen the stolen funds and it plans incinerate the tokens to render them useless to the hacker. Aston has also frozen its affected tokens, according to Coinrail.

Other projects have yet to comment, although Coinrail said in a statement on its website that two-thirds of the stolen tokens have been frozen with more action likely to happen.

Coinrail took its service offline and it said in a statement that it has moved the remainder of its assets — which it said is 70 percent of its total holdings — to cold storage while it reviews its security system and fully investigates the incident.

Some have suggested that the hack was responsible for bitcoin’s valuation dropping by over five percent in what is the cryptocurrency’s biggest decline for two weeks. However, Coinrail is so obscure that this theory seems unlikely.

What is for certain is that the hack serves as another strong reminder that the space remains unregulated — there’s with little recourse for victims of a crypto exchange hack, unlike say a bank robbery or payment fraud. More importantly, those who do buy bitcoin, Ethereum or other crypto tokens should keep their tokens securely in a private wallet (ideally using a hardware device for access) rather than leaving them within an exchange where they could be stolen.

For those of you keeping score on recent hacks on exchanges, here are a few: Coincheck lost an estimated $400 million earlier this year, last November saw Tether claim it lose $31 million following an attack while EtherDelta suspended its exchange service for a period in December after it was compromised.

The Mt. Gox hacking in 2014 is the mother of all crypto attacks, of course. In total the exchange lost around 744,408 BTC. That was worth around $350 million at the time, but today a holding of that size would be valued at some $5.3 billion.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Not just another decentralized web whitepaper?

Given all the hype and noise swirling around crypto and decentralized network projects, which runs the full gamut from scams and stupidity, to very clever and inspired ideas, the release of yet another whitepaper does not immediately set off an attention klaxon.

But this whitepaper — which details a new protocol for achieving consensus within a decentralized network — is worth paying more attention to than most.

MaidSafe, the team behind it, are also the literal opposite of fly-by-night crypto opportunists. They’ve been working on decentralized networking since long before the space became the hot, hyped thing it is now.

Their overarching mission is to engineer an entirely decentralized Internet which bakes in privacy, security and freedom of expression by design — the ‘Safe’ in their planned ‘Safe Network’ stands for ‘Secure access for everyone’ — meaning it’s encrypted, autonomous, self-organizing, self-healing. And the new consensus protocol is just another piece towards fulfilling that grand vision.

What’s consensus in decentralized networking terms? “Within decentralized networks you must have a way of the network agreeing on a state — such as can somebody access a file or confirming a coin transaction, for example — and the reason you need this is because you don’t have a central server to confirm all this to you,” explains MaidSafe’s COO Nick Lambert, discussing what the protocol is intended to achieve.

“So you need all these decentralized nodes all reaching agreement somehow on a state within the network. Consensus occurs by each of these nodes on the network voting and letting the network as a whole know what it thinks of a transaction.

“It’s almost like consensus could be considered the heart of the networks. It’s required for almost every event in the network.”

We wrote about MaidSafe’s alternative, server-less Internet in 2014. But they actually began work on the project in stealth all the way back in 2006. So they’re over a decade into the R&D at this point.

The network is p2p because it’s being designed so that data is locally encrypted, broken up into pieces and then stored distributed and replicated across the network, relying on the users’ own compute resources to stand in and take the strain. No servers necessary.

The prototype Safe Network is currently in an alpha testing stage (they opened for alpha in 2016). Several more alpha test stages are planned, with a beta release still a distant, undated prospect at this stage. But rearchitecting the entire Internet was clearly never going to be a day’s work.

MaidSafe also ran a multimillion dollar crowdsale in 2014 — for a proxy token of the coin that will eventually be baked into the network — and did so long before ICOs became a crypto-related bandwagon that all sorts of entities were jumping onto. The SafeCoin cryptocurrency is intended to operate as the inventive mechanism for developers to build apps for the Safe Network and users to contribute compute resource and thus bring MaidSafe’s distributed dream alive.

Their timing on the token sale front, coupled with prudent hodling of some of the Bitcoins they’ve raised, means they’re essentially in a position of not having to worry about raising more funds to build the network, according to Lambert.

A rough, back-of-an-envelope calculation on MaidSafe’s original crowdsale suggests, given they raised $2M in Bitcoin in April 2014 when the price for 1BTC was up to around $500, the Bitcoins they obtained then could be worth between ~$30M-$40M by today’s Bitcoin prices — though that would be assuming they held on to most of them. Bitcoin’s price also peaked far higher last year too.

As well as the token sale they also did an equity raise in 2016, via the fintech investment platform bnktothefuture, pulling in around $1.7M from that — in a mixture of cash and “some Bitcoin”.

“It’s gone both ways,” says Lambert, discussing the team’s luck with Bitcoin. “The crowdsale we were on the losing end of Bitcoin price decreasing. We did a raise from bnktothefuture in autumn of 2016… and fortunately we held on to quite a lot of the Bitcoin. So we rode the Bitcoin price up. So I feel like the universe paid us back a little bit for that. So it feels like we’re level now.”

“Fundraising is exceedingly time consuming right through the organization, and it does take a lot of time away from what you wants to be focusing on, and so to be in a position where you’re not desperate for funding is a really nice one to be in,” he adds. “It allows us to focus on the technology and releasing the network.”

The team’s headcount is now up to around 33, with founding members based at the HQ in Ayr, Scotland, and other engineers working remotely or distributed (including in a new dev office they opened in India at the start of this year), even though MaidSafe is still not taking in any revenue.

This April they also made the decision to switch from a dual licensing approach for their software — previously offering both an open source license and a commercial license (which let people close source their code for a fee) — to going only open source, to encourage more developer engagement and contributions to the project, as Lambert tells it.

“We always see the SafeNetwork a bit like a public utility,” he says. “In terms of once we’ve got this thing up and launched we don’t want to control it or own it because if we do nobody will want to use it — it needs to be seen as everyone contributing. So we felt it’s a much more encouraging sign for developers who want to contribute if they see everything is fully open sourced and cannot be closed source.”

MaidSafe’s story so far is reason enough to take note of their whitepaper.

But the consensus issue the paper addresses is also a key challenge for decentralized networks so any proposed solution is potentially a big deal — if indeed it pans out as promised.

 

Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus

MaidSafe reckons they’ve come up with a way of achieving consensus on decentralized networks that’s scalable, robust and efficient. Hence the name of the protocol — ‘Parsec’ — being short for: ‘Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus’.

They will be open sourcing the protocol under a GPL v3 license — with a rough timeframe of “months” for that release, according to Lambert.

He says they’ve been working on Parsec for the last 18 months to two years — but also drawing on earlier research the team carried out into areas such as conflict-free replicated data types, synchronous and asynchronous consensus, and topics such as threshold signatures and common coin.

More specifically, the research underpinning Parsec is based on the following five papers: 1. Baird L. The Swirlds Hashgraph Consensus Algorithm: Fair, Fast, Byzantine Fault Tolerance, Swirlds Tech Report SWIRLDS-TR-2016-01 (2016); 2. Mostefaoui A., Hamouna M., Raynal M. Signature-Free Asynchronous Byzantine Consensus with t <n/3 and O(n 2 ) Messages, ACM PODC (2014); 3. Micali S. Byzantine Agreement, Made Trivial, (2018); 4. Miller A., Xia Y., Croman K., Shi E., Song D. The Honey Badger of BFT Protocols, CCS (2016); 5. Team Rocket Snowflake to Avalanche: A Novel Metastable Consensus Protocol Family for Cryptocurrencies, (2018).

One tweet responding to the protocol’s unveiling just over a week ago wonders whether it’s too good to be true. Time will tell — but the potential is certainly enticing.

Bitcoin’s use of a drastically energy-inefficient ‘proof of work’ method to achieve consensus and write each transaction to its blockchain very clearly doesn’t scale. It’s slow, cumbersome and wasteful. And how to get blockchain-based networks to support the billions of transactions per second that might be needed to sustain the various envisaged applications remains an essential work in progress — with projects investigating various ideas and approaches to try to overcome the limitation.

MaidSafe’s network is not blockchain-based. It’s engineered to function with asynchronous voting of nodes, rather than synchronous voting, which should avoid the bottleneck problems associated with blockchain. But it’s still decentralized. So it needs a consensus mechanism to enable operations and transactions to be carried out autonomously and robustly. That’s where Parsec is intended to slot in.

The protocol does not use proof of work. And is able, so the whitepaper claims, to achieve consensus even if a third of the network is comprised of malicious nodes — i.e. nodes which are attempting to disrupt network operations or otherwise attack the network.

Another claimed advantage is that decisions made via the protocol are both mathematically guaranteed and irreversible.

“What Parsec does is it can reach consensus even with malicious nodes. And up to a third of the nodes being malicious is what the maths proofs suggest,” says Lambert. “This ability to provide mathematical guarantees that all parts of the network will come to the same agreement at a point in time, even with some fault in the network or bad actors — that’s what Byzantine Fault Tolerance is.”

In theory a blockchain using proof of work could be hacked if any one entity controlled 51% of the nodes on the network (although in reality it’s likely that such a large amount of energy would be required it’s pretty much impractical).

So on the surface MaidSafe’s decentralized network — which ‘only’ needs 33% of its nodes to be compromised for its consensus decisions to be attacked — sounds rather less robust. But Lambert says it’s more nuanced than the numbers suggest. And in fact the malicious third would also need to be nodes that have the authority to vote. “So it is a third but it’s a third of well reputed nodes,” as he puts it.

So there’s an element of proof of stake involved too, bound up with additional planned characteristics of the Safe Network — related to dynamic membership and sharding (Lambert says MaidSafe has additional whitepapers on both those elements coming soon).

“Those two papers, particularly the one around dynamic membership, will explain why having a third of malicious nodes is actually harder than just having 33% of malicious nodes. Because the nodes that can vote have to have a reputation as well. So it’s not just purely you can flood the Safe Network with lots and lots of malicious nodes and override it only using a third of the nodes. What we’re saying is the nodes that can vote and actually have a say must have a good reputation in the network,” he says.

“The other thing is proof of stake… Everyone is desperate to move away from proof of work because of its environmental impact. So proof of stake — I liken it to the Scottish landowners, where people with a lot of power have more say. In the cryptocurrency field, proof of stake might be if you have, let’s say, 10 coins and I have one coin your vote might be worth 10x as much authority as what my one coin would be. So any of these mechanisms that they come up with it has that weighting to it… So the people with the most vested interests in the network are also given the more votes.”

Sharding refers to closed groups that allow for consensus votes to be reached by a subset of nodes on a decentralized network. By splitting the network into small sections for consensus voting purposes the idea is you avoid the inefficiencies of having to poll all the nodes on the network — yet can still retain robustness, at least so long as subgroups are carefully structured and secured.

“If you do that correctly you can make it more secure and you can make things much more efficient and faster,” says Lambert. “Because rather than polling, let’s say 6,000 nodes, you might be polling eight nodes. So you can get that information back quickly.

“Obviously you need to be careful about how you do that because with much less nodes you can potentially game the network so you need to be careful how you secure those smaller closed groups or shards. So that will be quite a big thing because pretty much every crypto project is looking at sharding to make, certainly, blockchains more efficient. And so the fact that we’ll have something coming out in that, after we have the dynamic membership stuff coming out, is going to be quite exciting to see the reaction to that as well.”

Voting authority on the Safe Network might be based on a node’s longevity, quality and historical activity — so a sort of ‘reputation’ score (or ledger) that can yield voting rights over time.

“If you’re like that then you will have a vote in these closed groups. And so a third of those votes — and that then becomes quite hard to game because somebody who’s then trying to be malicious would need to have their nodes act as good corporate citizens for a time period. And then all of a sudden become malicious, by which time they’ve probably got a vested stake in the network. So it wouldn’t be possible for someone to just come and flood the network with new nodes and then be malicious because it would not impact upon the network,” Lambert suggests.

The computing power that would be required to attack the Safe Network once it’s public and at scale would also be “really, really significant”, he adds. “Once it gets to scale it would be really hard to co-ordinate anything against it because you’re always having to be several hundred percent bigger than the network and then have a co-ordinated attack on it itself. And all of that work might get you to impact the decision within one closed group. So it’s not even network wide… And that decision could be on who accesses one piece of encrypted shard of data for example… Even the thing you might be able to steal is only an encrypted shard of something — it’s not even the whole thing.”

Other distributed ledger projects are similarly working on Asynchronous Byzantine Fault Tolerant (AFBT) consensus models, including those using directed acrylic graphs (DAGs) — another nascent decentralization technology that’s been suggested as an alternative to blockchain.

And indeed AFBT techniques predate Bitcoin, though MaidSafe says these kind of models have only more recently become viable thanks to research and the relative maturing of decentralized computing and data types, itself as a consequence of increased interest and investment in the space.

However in the case of Hashgraph — the DAG project which has probably attracted the most attention so far — it’s closed source, not open. So that’s one major difference with MaidSafe’s approach. 

Another difference that Lambert points to is that Parsec has been built to work in a dynamic, permissionless network environment (essential for the intended use-case, as the Safe Network is intended as a public network). Whereas he claims Hashgraph has only demonstrated its algorithms working on a permissioned (and therefore private) network “where all the nodes are known”.

He also suggests there’s a question mark over whether Hashgraph’s algorithm can achieve consensus when there are malicious nodes operating on the network. Which — if true — would limit what it can be used for.

“The Hashgraph algorithm is only proven to reach agreement if there’s no adversaries within the network,” Lambert claims. “So if everything’s running well then happy days, but if there’s any maliciousness or any failure within that network then — certainly on the basis of what’s been published — it would suggest that that algorithm was not going to hold up to that.”

“I think being able to do all of these things asynchronously with all of the mathematical guarantees is very difficult,” he continues, returning to the core consensus challenge. “So at the moment we see that we have come out with something that is unique, that covers a lot of these bases, and is a very good use for our use-case. And I think will be useful for others — so I think we like to think that we’ve made a paradigm shift or a vast improvement over the state of the art.”

 

Paradigm shift vs marginal innovation

Despite the team’s conviction that, with Parsec, they’ve come up with something very notable, early feedback includes some very vocal Twitter doubters.

For example there’s a lengthy back-and-forth between several MaidSafe engineers and Ethereum researcher Vlad Zamfir — who dubs the Parsec protocol “overhyped” and a “marginal innovation if that”… so, er, ouch.

Lambert is, if not entirely sanguine, then solidly phlegmatic in the face of a bit of initial Twitter blowback — saying he reckons it will take more time for more detailed responses to come, i.e. allowing for people to properly digest the whitepaper.

“In the world of async BFT algorithms, any advance is huge,” MaidSafe CEO David Irvine also tells us when we ask for a response to Zamfir’s critique. “How huge is subjective, but any advance has to be great for the world. We hope others will advance Parsec like we have built on others (as we clearly state and thank them for their work).  So even if it was a marginal development (which it certainly is not) then I would take that.”

“All in all, though, nothing was said that took away from the fact Parsec moves the industry forward,” he adds. “I felt the comments were a bit juvenile at times and a bit defensive (probably due to us not agreeing with POS in our Medium post) but in terms of the only part commented on (the coin flip) we as a team feel that part could be much more concrete in terms of defining exactly how small such random (finite) delays could be. We know they do not stop the network and a delaying node would be killed, but for completeness, it would be nice to be that detailed.”

A developer source of our own in the crypto/blockchain space — who’s not connected to the MaidSafe or Ethereum projects — also points out that Parsec “getting objective review will take some time given that so many potential reviewers have vested interest in their own project/coin”.

It’s certainly fair to say the space excels at public spats and disagreements. Researchers pouring effort into one project can be less than kind to rivals’ efforts. (And, well, given all the crypto Lambos at stake it’s not hard to see why there can be no love lost — and, ironically, zero trust — between competing champions of trustless tech.)

Another fundamental truth of these projects is they’re all busily experimenting right now, with lots of ideas in play to try and fix core issues like scalability, efficiency and robustness — often having different ideas over implementation even if rival projects are circling and/or converging on similar approaches and techniques.

“Certainly other projects are looking at sharding,” says Lambert. “So I know that Ethereum are looking at sharding. And I think Bitcoin are looking at that as well, but I think everyone probably has quite different ideas about how to implement it. And of course we’re not using a blockchain which makes that another different use-case where Ethereum and Bitcoin obviously are. But everyone has — as with anything — these different approaches and different ideas.”

“Every network will have its own different ways of doing [consensus],” he adds when asked whether he believes Parsec could be adopted by other projects wrestling with the consensus challenge. “So it’s not like some could lift [Parsec] out and just put it in. Ethereum is blockchain-based — I think they’re looking at something around proof of stake, but maybe they could take some ideas or concepts from the work that we’re open sourcing for their specific case.

“If you get other blockchain-less networks like IOTA, Byteball, I think POA is another one as well. These other projects it might be easier for them to implement something like Parsec with them because they’re not using blockchain. So maybe less of that adaption required.”

Whether other projects will deem Parsec worthy of their attention remains to be seen at this point with so much still to play for. Some may prefer to expend effort trying to rubbish a rival approach, whose open source tech could, if it stands up to scrutiny and operational performance, reduce the commercial value of proprietary and patented mechanisms also intended to grease the wheels of decentralized networks — for a fee.

And of course MaidSafe’s developed-in-stealth consensus protocol may also turn out to be a relatively minor development. But finding a non-vested expert to give an impartial assessment of complex network routing algorithms conjoined to such a self-interested and, frankly, anarchical industry is another characteristic challenge of the space.

Irvine’s view is that DAG based projects which are using a centralized component will have to move on or adopt what he dubs “state of art” asynchronous consensus algorithms — as MaidSafe believes Parsec is — aka, algorithms which are “more widely accepted and proven”.

“So these projects should contribute to the research, but more importantly, they will have to adopt better algorithms than they use,” he suggests. “So they can play an important part, upgrades! How to upgrade a running DAG based network? How to had fork a graph? etc. We know how to hard fork blockchains, but upgrading DAG based networks may not be so simple when they are used as ledgers.

“Projects like Hashgraph, Algorand etc will probably use an ABFT algorithm like this as their whole network with a little work for a currency; IOTA, NANO, Bytball etc should. That is entirely possible with advances like Parsec. However adding dynamic membership, sharding, a data layer then a currency is a much larger proposition, which is why Parsec has been in stealth mode while it is being developed.

“We hope that by being open about the algorithm, and making the code open source when complete, we will help all the other projects working on similar problems.”

Of course MaidSafe’s team might be misguided in terms of the breakthrough they think they’ve made with Parsec. But it’s pretty hard to stand up the idea they’re being intentionally misleading.

Because, well, what would be the point of that? While the exact depth of MaidSafe’s funding reserves isn’t clear, Lambert doesn’t sound like a startup guy with money worries. And the team’s staying power cannot be in doubt — over a decade into the R&D needed to underpin their alt network.

It’s true that being around for so long does have some downsides, though. Especially, perhaps, given how hyped the decentralized space has now become. “Because we’ve been working on it for so long, and it’s been such a big project, you can see some negative feedback about that,” as Lambert admits.

And with such intense attention now on the space, injecting energy which in turn accelerates ideas and activity, there’s perhaps extra pressure on a veteran player like MaidSafe to be seen making a meaningful contribution — ergo, it might be tempting for the team to believe the consensus protocol they’ve engineered really is a big deal.

To stand up and be counted amid all the noise, as it were. And to draw attention to their own project — which needs lots of external developers to buy into the vision if it’s to succeed, yet, here in 2018, it’s just one decentralization project among so many. 

 

The Safe Network roadmap

Consensus aside, MaidSafe’s biggest challenge is still turning the sizable amount of funding and resources the team’s ideas have attracted to date into a bona fide alternative network that anyone really can use. And there’s a very long road to travel still on that front, clearly.

The Safe Network is in alpha 2 testing incarnation (which has been up and running since September last year) — consisting of around a hundred nodes that MaidSafe is maintaining itself.

The core decentralization proposition of anyone being able to supply storage resource to the network via lending their own spare capacity is not yet live — and won’t come fully until alpha 4.

“People are starting to create different apps against that network. So we’ve seen Jams — a decentralized music player… There are a couple of storage style apps… There is encrypted email running as well, and also that is running on Android,” says Lambert. “And we have a forked version of the Beaker browser — that’s the browser that we use right now. So if you can create websites on the Safe Network, which has its own protocol, and if you want to go and view those sites you need a Safe browser to do that, so we’ve also been working on our own browser from scratch that we’ll be releasing later this year… So there’s a number of apps that are running against that alpha 2 network.

“What alpha 3 will bring is it will run in parallel with alpha 2 but it will effectively be a decentralized routing network. What that means is it will be one for more technical people to run, and it will enable data to be passed around a network where anyone can contribute their resources to it but it will not facilitate data storage. So it’ll be a command line app, which is probably why it’ll suit technical people more because there’ll be no user interface for it, and they will contribute their resources to enable messages to be passed around the network. So secure messaging would be a use-case for that.

“And then alpha 4 is effectively bringing together alpha 2 and alpha 3. So it adds a storage layer on top of the alpha 3 network — and at that point it gives you the fully decentralized network where users are contributing their resources from home and they will be able to store data, send messages and things of that nature. Potentially during alpha 4, or a later alpha, we’ll introduce test SafeCoin. Which is the final piece of the initial puzzle to provide incentives for users to provide resources and for developers to make apps. So that’s probably what the immediate roadmap looks like.”

On the timeline front Lambert won’t be coaxed into fixing any deadlines to all these planned alphas. They’ve long ago learnt not to try and predict the pace of progress, he says with a laugh. Though he does not question that progress is being made.

“These big infrastructure projects are typically only government funded because the payback is too slow for venture capitalists,” he adds. “So in the past you had things like Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet — that was obviously a US government funded project — and so we’ve taken on a project which has, not grown arms and legs, but certainly there’s more to it than what was initially thought about.

“So we are almost privately funding this infrastructure. Which is quite a big scope, and I will say why it’s taking a bit of time. But we definitely do seem to be making lots of progress.”