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Zk-Snarks Everywhere: Ethereum Privacy Tech Hits Tipping Point

“I was expecting maybe 15-20 people to care about zk-snarks, but wow.”

Despite his reservations, the crowd scrambled for seats as zcash researcher Andrew Miller took to the stage at Devcon3 today. But the response, at times elated, perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise as the third day of ethereum’s flagship developer conference featured a selection of sessions devoted to zk-snarks and other privacy advances made possible by ethereum’s latest software upgrade, Byzantium.

Based on more advanced cryptography, the newly ethereum-compatible updates are being heralded as not only a privacy solution, but potentially a way to scale the network to keep up with its expanding user base. And while the event marked the first official meetup since zk-snarks were made possible on the platform, the raw potential of the tech is already beginning to demonstrate. 

For example, Newcastle University’s Patrick McCorry presented The Open Vote Network, a system that enables anonymous voting on the ethereum platform. Long been touted as an ideal application of the tech, blockchain voting has been held back by the potential risks inherent with a transparent blockchain.

But because the cryptography now allows for statements to be verified on the blockchain, without revealing sensitive transactions, possible use cases like McCorry’s could stretch far and wide.

Miller went so far as to predict an “upcoming boom” in “zapps” – his term for ethereum decentralized applications (dapps) that will deploy the privacy tech. And although the community has encountered some hindrances, the zapps are quickly becoming a reality.

As Jacob Eberhardt, author of ZoKrates, a brand new zk-snarks development toolkit, told CoinDesk:

“It’s a bit like the early days in ethereum – it’s not clear what will happen, but everyone can see the potential.”

Overcoming obstacles

Announced earlier at Devcon3, Eberhardt has created a zk-snarks compiler that will allow developers to easily create zk-snarks-infused smart contracts. The potential of this is clear, as it allows projects like the Open Vote Network to reach fruition for the first time.

However, there’s one problem that was also evident from the outset – the unfortunate “trusted setup.”

As profiled by CoinDesk, the trusted set-up is a security phase in the generation of a zk-snarks, one that’s necessary because it protects from malicious behavior, but problematic in that it’s expensive, risky and reliant on faith in the very people responsible for the so-called trusted set-up.

At great expense, zcash used a trusted setup in the generation of its blockchain, and the process, which was only a once-off, is still being criticized for not achieving a security optimum. Complicating matters is that this set-up phase would be even more complicated to perform on ethereum, because it would need to occur every time a zapp is created.

But potential ground was broken here on solutions as well.

Announced to the crowd at Devcon3 today, zcash researchers Sean Bowe, Ariel Gabizon and Ian Miers proposed a new set-up ceremony – one that they believe can scale to hundreds of thousands of participants. And the best thing about this is: the more participants are added, the more secure it becomes.

As put forward in the paper, the ceremony would only require one agent to act honestly in order to function – and so would be resistent to potential malicious actions by set-up participants.

Speaking to CoinDesk, Eberhardt summarized these developments: “The two things come together that hindered adoption before – better abstractions and improved setups.”

Off-chain computations

Of equal potential is that because the cryptography compresses information, zk-snarks are believed to be a potential building block that can be used to scale the ethereum network. Currently, they’re still quite expensive to verify, but Eberhardt envisages a day where costs will decrease.

Under his proposed scheme, expensive computations could be performed off-chain and then stored on the blockchain a succinct translation of that computation. But because zk-snarks are still relatively expensive, it won’t surpass other scaling methods until this cost is lowered – or the tech itself becomes more lightweight.

Toward this, a professor at the Israeli Institute of Technology, Eli-Ben Sasson, is working toward zk-starks, a privacy equivalent that promises to increase speed and vastly decrease storage. However, it’s still very much in production, leading zcash researcher Sean Bowe to remark that researchers might be better working around existing solutions today.

“We’re stuck with zk-snarks for probably for a long time, at least until they’re destroyed by quantum computing,” he said.

But there’s still a lot of faith that one day, the booming research area could become the scaling solution that ethereum is waiting for.

As Eberhardt described:

“It’s beautiful, and it has this inherent privacy property. It combines two unsolved properties in one technology.”

Blurred light via Shutterstock

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Hello Moon: Ethereum Developers Launch Lightweight Dapp Browser

Despite the booming token market based on its technology, ethereum isn’t deviating from its stated goal of becoming a “world computer.”

In a move that showcases developers are still prioritizing the creation of so-called distributed applications (dapps), a new version of Mist, the original browser designed for ethereum apps, made its debut at Devcon today. Demoed at the Cancun conference, Moon, or Mist-light, is a browser-based rewrite of the software meant to perform similar tasks to the desktop version, though in a way that doesn’t require downloading.

Much like Mist, Moon isn’t only a browser, it provides an interface for dapp development.

Users can visit an app, safely fork or edit the code, and changes are updated real time on the webpage. This development code is hashed, and then it’s shareable, and anyone can plug it into their own Moon browser.

Unlike Mist, which runs on Javascript, Moon operates on its own language that acts as a Javascript compiler, one its developers say allows ethereum dapps to be securely accessed and tested without causing risk to the original code. (Present on the interface, which displays the source code for any dapp accessed via the browser, is an icon that allows for editing.)

Speaking to CoinDesk, ethereum developer Alex Van De Sande explained that the concept behind the feature was to help other software developers “learn to love the fork.” Hard forks, or software updates, have arguably a bad name in blockchain because they can be complicated to execute safely.

But Van De Sande emphasized that in open-source software design, forks are integral to the overall health of applications, and should be celebrated as part of that diversity.

Hello moon via Alex Van De Sande

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Smarter Bug Bounties? Hydra Codes Creative Solution for Ethereum Theft

Can the right alignment of incentives encourage better blockchain bug reporting?

That’s the goal of Hydra, a new effort funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and designed by a team of researchers including Lorenz Breidenbach, Phil Daian and Ari Juels from Cornell, and Florian Tramer from Stanford.

Announced today at ethereum’s annual developer conference, Devcon3, the Hydra project is novel in that its contracts aim to automatically and programmatically offer those who report a bug higher rewards than they’d get if they exploited one. In this way, if a user’s smart contract hack would result in a reward of 100 tokens, Hydra would pay out 1,000 tokens if he or she reported it instead.

As such, the project offers a potential solution to an incentive problem common in smart contract development. A popular tool for open-source projects, many times payouts simply make the bad behavior more lucrative.

Hydra tweaks the incentives, however, testing how the nascent concept of crypto-economics – simply, the study of cryptocurrency economies – might encourage people to report bugs they identify.

But rather than condemning the actions of bad actors, Daian sees Hydra as a solution that blends pragmatism and smart programming.

Daian said:

“Let’s see this as a game. What would a rational attacker do with these systems? Say an attacker finds a bug: would they attack or would they claim the bounty?”

But while many will be excited to start playing around with the system, released in alpha today, Daian stressed that it’s still nascent technology that might not be safe for storing funds.

He said, “The code is here for you to play with. But trusting funds with this baby Hydra we’ve spun up – not good idea.

Image via Rachel Rose-O’Leary for CoinDesk

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Ethereum Storage Network Swarm Enters Next Test Phase

Swarm, the decentralized storage branch of the ethereum network, has advanced to is third proof-of-concept stage.

Speaking to CoinDesk at Devcon3, swarm lead developer Victor Tron revealed today that the proof-of-concept is now fully compatible with the ethereum client, Geth, and Whisper, the project’s messaging protocol, bringing ethereum one step closer to its “holy trinity” vision, where three systems provide a complete alternative to the World Wide Web.

And in his talk, Tron emphasized how his work fits into the wider vision for ethereum, one in which the storage branch will function much like Dropbox, providing the ability for platform users to store content and create and share folders.

The proof-of-concept is testing also a brand new privacy layer, which Tron said is key to keeping ethereum resistant to the whims of authorities.

He told CoinDesk:

“If you operate it on Swarm, there’s no way for a jurisdiction to take that down because it’s this obfuscation method. Nodes can plausibly deny that they have the content. This is a very important feature because it’s censorship-resistant basically.”

According to Tron, Swarm could pave the way for many “beautiful things,” such as distributed public archives that cannot be shut down or censored.

The proof-of-concept will also stress test what happens to the network once it’s grown to tens of thousands of nodes, what Tron called a scalability test, a hot topic at Devcon this year.

The new version of Swarm is expected to launch sometime after Devcon3.

Test tubes image via Shutterstock

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