The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Bitcoin

Pretty Good Anonymity

In Darkode, the hosts tell the story of a ransomware victim who was forced to buy 500 dollars worth of Bitcoin to gain access back to her files that had been stolen and encrypted. In the process, she came in contact with TOR which has as its central mission to provide anonymous communication between people through computers. Because of the secrecy it provides, the dark web (which can be accessed through TOR) is home to a host of cyber-crime including selling stolen financial information and other illegal goods and services. Similarly, the purpose of ZCash was to take the ledger system implemented by Bitcoin but to improve the product by also ensuring  mathematically guaranteed anonymity in every transaction. Although this is a significant upside, it also opens the currency up to some potentially dark uses, since this anonymity is exactly what criminals are looking for to be able to buy and sell goods illegally without arousing suspicion.

Although the days of perfect security are gone, this level of anonymity is pretty good. It allows anybody who uses these services to be confident that their identity is almost certainly anonymous, and this poses a significant challenge to the privacy vs. security debate: how can we allow people to have access to pretty good anonymity without losing the ability to track down criminals? After all, if ZCash worked as intended, you could easily see a list of all transactions that had taken place, but you couldn’t figure out who was involved in them, creating the perfect smokescreen in which criminals can hide.

A comparison could be made to the selling of ski masks, gloves, and guns; all three can be used to do evil things, but all of them are still legal products that have legitimate uses. But the level of anonymity afforded by ZCash and other similar privacy-focused technologies goes far beyond what you could attain with a pair of gloves and a ski mask. Perhaps this nearly perfect anonymity has gone to far, enabling criminal activity without any significant benefits for legitimate uses. This is one of the most difficult questions to answer in the security vs. privacy debate, and one that could cast the deciding vote in which direction we as a society choose to go.

The Writing Process

The first part of my process for writing the practical cryptography paper was selecting a topic. This was quite time consuming since nothing that I found particularly stood out at me. The main problem with selecting a topic was finding something interesting, applicable, and with enough information available. I eventually settled upon Bitcoin. The reason I choose this topic was that it was not well known among college students and represents the future of money. The next step in working on the paper was research. I knew very little about the topic before starting this paper. The most challenging part for me understood how Bitcoin works. This portion was the most time consuming by far. Once I understood the process of Bitcoin, I was about to start outlining my paper. I spend a large portion of my paper explaining Bitcoin and its functions. The remainder of the paper is about its application and implications in our lives. I have finished the rough draft of the essay. I will make further revisions and edits once I get feedback. The most enjoyable part of the paper was learning about something new that I would never have thought to read about. The paper overall was a good experience for me.

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