New York Senator Chuck Schumer probably occupies a top place in the libertarian axis of evil. A bigot, a religious fanatic, a nanny-state totalitarian and a crook, Schumer epitomizes the libertarian critique against political authority. This is a man who is accustomed to barking orders at a servile populace, a man who counts intimidation and threats to be among his preferred methods of executing governance. So this video and story of Schumer’s outrage over Silk Road and Bitcoin, likely facilitated by a recent Gawker article, is vintage Chuck. Conjure moral outrage, summon the TV cameras, bark orders…
But, unfortunately for Chuck, this ain’t Four Loco. Ordering the Feds to shutdown the website and “seize the domain” was comedic display of Mussolini buffoonery. I suppose it’s sad that no one in the press corp had the technical wherewithal to challenge Schumer’s stupidity, but it’s amusing that Schumer’s aide, the one that set up the TOR client to access the site, didn’t have the cojones to prevent Chuck from looking like a moron. But then again, I suppose it’s probably career suicide to stand between Schumer’s moral outrage and a TV camera.
Silk Road is running as a TOR hidden service on the TOR P2P tunneling network. This means it’s being run from someone’s anonymous box that generally can’t be identified. It can be anywhere in the world. Anyone who downloads the TOR software can setup a hidden service. There’s no “domain name” to seize here and the only way to stop this sort of thing (at least until the “Internet Kill Switch Bill” is enacted) is to ban the TOR protocol outright, which would counter the government’s interests because: (i) it would cast the US in a bad authoritarian light (ii) more importantly, it’s used by US intelligence organs as a secure communications tunneling network with international assets. After all, it was the US government that originally developed it, and it was released into the wild because it’s useless, like any other P2P network, without a robust number of nodes. In particular, here, a TOR network of nodes consisting of just the spies, informants and US bureaucrats would be “stick out like a sore thumb” tunnel; these tunnels need lots of “noise,” that is, lots and lots of other tunnels to be effective. Also, of course, if the software was “classified,” there would be an obvious distribution problem of getting the software into the hands of the intelligence assets, a vulnerability(which could be exploited, because the acquisition method of the software could be compromised and tracked) that, combined with the “stick out like a sore thumb” intelligence-only tunnels, would make TOR useless. And this is why the US government released TOR into the wild.
Chuck hasn’t gotten the memo on TOR yet, but I imagine he will get the intelligence organ “sit down” on that. It’s not TOR that’s the threat, it’s Bitcoin. Schumer called Bitcoin a “money laundering mechanism;” certainly he is ready to take the lead in Senate hearings to foster drafting new legislation that would outlaw any unauthorized crypto-currency. However, the government, particularly the intelligence organs, is a bit ahead of Schumer in that the CIA is sponsoring a presentation by the Bitcoin lead developer.
Hitherto, the problem of crypto-currencies, in terms of being any threat to the State, was the need of a central authority to regulate against fraud. Anyone can define an electronic coin as a ledger/chain of digital signatures. One obvious problem is how to prevent Agent A, who is wishing to transfer ownership of the coin for a good/service, to simultaneously use the same coin to buy something from Agent B and Agent C, that is, more or less simultaneously digitally sign Agent B’s and Agent C’s public key. This problem would seem to require a central authority to referee between A’s transaction with B and A’s transaction with C.
The Bitcoin algorithm, from I gather reading the technical whitepaper, solves the problem of transaction verification by incentivizing every node in the Bitcoin network to race for verification of outstanding transactions. In other words, every node is in competition to serve as the clearinghouse for the current existing block of unverified transactions. The verification is done by timestamp. All transactions are broadcast to all nodes, but in a P2P network, Node X’s timestamp for the current unverified transactions may be differ than Node Y’s timestamp for the same. The timestamp verification that wins out, that is the node that wins the clearinghouse game, depends on that node solving a “proof of work concept” that is able to solve a difficult mathematical problem of converting a hash representation of it’s own block into a required leading zero-bit format. The winning node then broadcasts it’s time stamp block to all nodes that readjust accordingly. The winning node is awarded a certain amount of bitcoins which serves as the first transaction in the next block of unverified transactions that will need to be verified.
Bitcoin is able to use competition to resolve the clearinghouse problem(clearinghouse nodes are incentivized by new coin creation). It ingeniously self-corrects for the introduction of cpu power by making the mathematical work of proof problem geometrically more difficult. This allows scalability without monopoly capture, but it does create a division of labor scenario where clearinghouse nodes invest in GPU cycles over CPU cycles(the investment in GPU cycles allows the system to handle the clearinghouse needs of an expanding system). However, the system constraints cap the total coin creation which means that clearinghouse nodes will eventually only compete over transaction fees.
The question concerning Bitcoin is two-fold: (i) can it survive a coordinated hacker attack (ii) can it survive government censorship/banning. We are probably about to find out about (ii). The thing about the US is that it is not a hard censorship regime; it’s a soft censorship regime. An actual honest-to-god crypto currency, however, is it’s worst nightmare. The US government will release something like TOR into the wild, but it would never release something like Bitcoin into the wild.