The Bitcoin inside The Code Book
by Scimson on April 24, 2014 - 2:15pm
I have been reading The Code Book over the last week, which is a pretty interesting publication exploring the problems and opportunities of cryptography. The objective of the author, Simon Singh, is to inform as many people as possible over the concerns of computer security and privacy. The book was published in March 2002 and, today, we can see some of Singh’s concerns as reality.
I decided to read the chapter “Pretty God Privacy: The politics of privacy, the future of cryptography and the quest for an uncrackable code” because it focuses on the future concerns related to computer security. I have previously been reading about problems related to the technology world including the risks of public Wi-Fi, but what interested me the most was my research on the Bitcoin. The Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, which is a virtual online currency that relies solely on cryptography for security and is independent of governments. As a computer science and mathematics student, I have always been interested in computer security. The existence of the Bitcoin itself is fascinating. The simple fact that it is possible to have currencies that are currently totally secure which rely on nothing more than mathematics and programming.
I think the chapter of this book describes the issue with our current system quite well: “The Information Age depends on the ability to protect information as it flows around the world.” (Singh 221) It is obvious that any transaction going through the net needs to be encrypted in order to ensure the money gets to the right person and is not intercepted. Nowadays, even though this issue was raised before the rise of social networking, the problem is even bigger. With social website such as Facebook and Twitter which contain such a large amount of personal data and provide easy access to impersonation, the threat of identity theft and stalking is larger than ever.
One of the pioneers in personal computer security is Phil Zimmermann, a computer scientist who decided to freely offer his encryption software through the net to anyone. He allowed, with his simple and efficient techniques, the average personal computer user to be able to encrypt his message with limited computing power and pass it to his personal correspondent. For this act, which appears totally legal and is actually legitimate, he had to fight lawsuit from the US government. Since before computers the only real use of cryptography was to encrypt military orders, his software was considered as an illegal weapon. In the end, he won the war and the lawsuits were dropped, but these events present the fear of governments to be isolated from citizens’ life.
As we know today with the recent issues the world has brought up with Edward Snowden and the NSA who seem to actually be spying on nearly everyone in the world, governments fear encryption. If an organization like the NSA, or a terrorist group is able to intercept simple user data, they will be able to use it to their advantage. However, if the data is encrypted, the organization would have to break its encryption, which is believed to be nearly impossible to do as it would take a few quadrillion years for a computer to break current encryption techniques. Justifying their actions from the interception of terrorists’ messages, the US government has proposed laws in the past which would force people using encryption to register the key of their encryption with the government so that if any federal investigation suspects an individual, his messages can be decrypted.
Now the interesting perspective regarding the Bitcoin and its possible implementation, is that the government probably won’t like to lose the nearly absolute control they have over the currency. The way the Bitcoin system currently works prevents anyone from seeing any details about any transaction, even though they are registered by the Bitcoin Peer to Peer network. Each Bitcoin wallet has its own encrypted number representing it and it is therefore considered impossible to find out who is the person that possess the wallet. Governments would not have any way to track illegal transactions, intercept terrorist transaction or even simply reverse the transfer of money coming from a fraud.
In the end, however, one of the main problems with the security of the Bitcoin comes from our current method of cryptography. It is currently believed that it is basically impossible to break it, however, so was the Enigma machine during World War II and it has been proven wrong. It is impossible to assume that something is unbreakable before someone is able to break it. Regarding this issue, a method of cryptography is confirmed unbreakable by Quantum Mechanics, which is the latest and most successful physics theory so far. Quantum encryption relies on particles of matter that are so small that the simple action of measuring them changes them. So anyone who would intercept a message would change the message and notice any recipient of the tampering as well as not providing the correct message. It has currently been attempted, but only on a small distance. Then again, if the Quantum Mechanics theory turns out to be false, it would be a failure of modern science, but how can we say if it is true or not? There will always be a quest for the perfect security system, but there is no way to be completely sure that it is really secure. Even more if we look at the Bitcoin security and blame it for being risky, then the banks and online transaction systems aren’t properly secured either.
Singh, Simon. The Code Book. New York: Delacorte Press, 2001. Print.