Sunday, June 24, 2012

A secure bitcoin device

Bitcoins seem to be here to stay. They are being used an increasing amount, in ways both legitimate and illegitimate. But security is a problem for any system where irrevocable and (almost) untraceable transactions can move significant value. The conventional banking system has evolved a system of traceability that lets it wind back fraudulent or simply erroneous transactions, but bitcoins lack such safeguards. Added to this is the fact that any bitcoin wallet system has to be connected to other untrusted computers in order to be useful (and in practice that usually means the Internet). Malware exists that automatically hunts for bitcoin wallets and empties them.

In short, keeping BTC on your home PC is about as secure as keeping physical cash in a pot on the mantelpiece while having your house redecorated.

So what would it take to make a bitcoin wallet secure? The answer is, quite a lot.

Threat Analysis

Step one of security is a threat analysis: what are you protecting, who are the threat, and how well funded are they?

What? In this case lets assume that we want to protect a bitcoin wallet for common transactions, but the user has conventional bank accounts, pension fund and so forth holding the majority of their non-physical wealth. So the wallet typically only has the equivalent of $100-$200 in it, enough for a week's groceries. Very occasionally it may have enough for a bigger purchase, say $20,000 to buy a car. Lets also assume that bitcoins are in widespread use (suppose Amazon accepted them) and hence pretty much anyone with sense will have done the usual things to protect their wallets. (If that means buying our solution, then our solution is going to be protecting a lot of money, more on this later). This is also not going to protect people who want to keep large amounts of cash outside of a bank: they will need to take stronger measures; the bitcoin equivalent of a safe bolted to a wall rather than a cashbox in a drawer.

This leaves out a lot of use-cases: Amazon, in particular, are going to need to keep a float worth many thousands of dollars, if not millions. And behind them are going to be financial institutions with substantial holdings. But at that point custom security becomes feasible. This post is about protecting Joe Sixpack's wallet.

Who? Lets assume that Joe and Jane Sixpack know enough to keep their wallet physically protected, and can trust the people they let into the house, at least to the point of not picking their pockets. That's not always the case of course, but its a good starting assumption. Similarly we are not going to try to prevent them from transferring money to confidence tricksters. So that limits the threat to the digital equivalent of burglary or pick-pocketing; an untrusted outsider gains access to the wallet and steals the coins from it. In this case that would be various forms of digital intruder, either using real-time hacking or malware.

How well funded? Not all crime is rational, but it can still be a useful starting point to assume that the threat is a hypothetical rational criminal willing to invest resources in the expectation of a return on their investment. In other words we can assume that the resources available to roughly match the rewards on offer.

The two strategies available to an attacker are to take whatever cash happens to be in the wallet at the time, or to wait until a substantial sum is transferred in and take that. Given the likely time to wait for Joe and Jane to buy a new car (and even assuming that they pay for it using BTC instead of a debit card), its probably better to take the available cash immediately.

So the most lucrative form of theft would be a "class break" against all wallets of a particular type, followed by a swift emptying of those wallets before countermeasures could be taken. That would be very lucrative indeed. If you could compromise a million wallets with $100 worth of BTC each, you could take $100,000,000. The actual yield would be smaller due to the need to hide, launder and extract value from the cash. But clearly Joe and Jane Sixpack are going to have to be protected against some extremely well-funded adversaries.

A Dedicated Device

Rootkits that compromise virtual machines are already available and doing the rounds. So trying to wall off the wallet from the rest of a PC is not going to work. A secure bitcoin wallet has to be based on a dedicated platform. For the same reason this platform is going to need its own physical user interface: having it take orders to transfer money from an untrusted PC is as bad as having the wallet on the PC. So we need a device with enough computing power to send and receive BTC, plus a screen and a numeric keyboard for entering PINs and confirming transactions. When you want to transfer BTC to someone your computer sends the amount and ID of the destination wallet to your device, and the device then asks for independent confirmation of the transaction on its screen. As long as the device security is not compromised it is impossible to extract BTC from the device without a human being agreeing to it.

This implies a small device with a modest processor, a couple of gigabytes of flash, a keypad, a low-resolution LCD screen and a USB port. This is about the same specification as a cheap mobile phone, suggesting that such a device could be mass produced and sold for a few tens of dollars.

Clearly such a device is going to need a very high degree of internal security, but, given a well defined protocol for transaction requests from outside, this should not be a problem. There will also need to be a secure path for updated software and corresponding upstream security: the digital signature for software updates in particular would be a very tempting target for an attacker.


Clearly the wallet device may be damaged or suffer corruption. One solution would simply be to accept the risk, in the same way we accept that money is lost if a physical wallet gets destroyed in a fire. But computers fail rather more often than that, so a backup is probably necessary.

The problem is that a backup is also an attack avenue: because of the way bitcoin works, if you can get hold of a copy of someone's wallet then you can empty it using any PC. So any backup has to be just as secure, and yet kept reasonably up to date at the same time.

One option would be to keep the wallet on two independent SD flash cards configured for RAID 1: if one card fails it can be securely destroyed and replaced, and if the device fails then the cards can be moved to a new one. That just leaves data corruption and physical damage as risks. Corruption risk can be minimised by careful design of the software, such as keeping a known-good copy of the wallet as backup during a transaction and running validity checks before committing to the new one. Physical damage is a sufficiently remote possibility to be tolerable in this application.

Other Attacks

The kind of device described so far can be used to verify that money is being sent to a particular wallet, identified by a string of digits. As long as the user knows the destination wallet ID they can be sure that they have sent the right amount to the right person. But this creates a possible attack: malware on the user's PC could systematically replace receiving wallet IDs with those of the attacker. Thus when Joe Sixpack buys a laptop on Ebay he would see payment details specifying a wallet ID and, not realising that this was not the wallet of the vendor, unwittingly send payment to the thief.

In theory this can be avoided by a digital certificate tying the wallet to a particular person, to be verified and displayed by the wallet device as part of the transaction authorisation. But that requires a wider public key infrastructure that has so far proven expensive and fragile; it might work for large vendors, but not for small ones.

In the Meantime

For now most of these measures are not necessary. Bitcoin wallets are sufficiently rare that simple measures, such as keeping your wallet on a dedicated virtual machine, are probably sufficient. But if bitcoins become a widespread and popular form of payment then standardised security solutions will become necessary, and any standardised security will be a target for class breaks that will enable many users to be attacked at once.

If I were to use bitcoins today I would probably put them on a dedicated Raspberry Pi set to make regular encrypted backups to a share on my regular PC, and write down the (very long and random) key somewhere safe. But not everybody is going to be able to set up such a system themselves.


Jimmy Jarred said...
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Lars Bjerga said...
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Lars Bjerga said...
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