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Bitcoin Testnet Could Need Reset After 13 Years: Jameson Lopp Explains Controversial Griefing Attack

Last Updated May 3, 2024 10:43 AM
Teuta Franjkovic
Last Updated May 3, 2024 10:43 AM
By Teuta Franjkovic
Verified by Peter Henn

Key Takeaways

  • Jameson Lopp intentionally disrupted Bitcoin’s testnet to expose a weakness.
  • His actions sparked a debate about the importance of testnet security and the need for potential resets.
  • Lopp sees Ordinals as innovative but acknowledges potential security concerns.
  • While other blockchains may gain traction, Bitcoin’s unique status as neutral money could be difficult to surpass.

In a revealing conversation with CCN, cypherpunk and Bitcoin advocate Jameson Lopp discussed his recent controversial act on one of Bitcoin’s testnets.

Recently, Lopp deliberately “griefed” the testnet by generating three years’ worth of blocks in just a week. This move was intended to expose a vulnerability he had previously identified. In doing so, he used a mere 20 lines of code and just $1 worth of electricity.

Lopp’s Hack Disrupts Developers, Raises Security Concerns

Lopp’s actions caused considerable disruption for developers working on applications on the testnet. As a result, this caused a mixed response from the community. While some developers criticized his actions as harmful and akin to vandalism, others defended the use of the testnet for such stress tests, arguing that it was crucial to identify potential flaws before they could affect the main network.

Defending his approach, Lopp then explained:

“The intent was to draw attention to the testnet’s ‘timewarp’ weakness. It’s vital we address these issues promptly. If we don’t stress-test under controlled conditions, we risk much greater damage in the live environment.”

The discussion also touched upon the reaction from the Bitcoin community. Bitcoin entrepreneur, researcher and industry spokesperson Francis Pouliot emphasized that the testnet is primarily used not to test the protocol itself but to ensure that applications run smoothly across various platforms. He said :

“Testnet is critical because everyone’s infrastructure depends on it—Electrum servers, explorers, Lightning Network nodes, mobile wallets, and more.”

He highlighted the logistical challenges in coordinating updates across multiple organizations, which can halt testing altogether.

Lopp’s Actions Highlight Need for Stronger Bitcoin Safety Nets

Lopp’s actions have sparked a broader debate about the purpose and robustness of testnets. This, he said, demostrated ongoing challenges in blockchain development and the balancing act between innovation and stability.

Lopp told CCN the people could use the testnet for many things. He suspects there would be some level of disagreement that it was not for testing that the protocol works.

He explained:

“If you read through the discussion on my development mailing list thread , there’s rough agreement that testnet is

  • Important to be as close to the mainnet Bitcoin protocol as possible, with the exception of the minimum difficulty rule to ensure the network doesn’t get stuck in a state where it’s impossible to mine a new block.
  • Important that is has a lot of weird activity and edge cases so that developers can ensure their infrastructure is robust.

“But yes, it’s true that most Bitcoin projects and companies are using the public testnet rather than a signet or private regtest network. This was something I brought up in my original email that since it has been 13 years since the last reset, it would be harder to coordinate everyone upgrading. But it’s arguably less important to coordinate an upgrade than it would be for mainnet because testnet tokens shouldn’t have actual value.”

Pushing for Bitcoin Testnet Reset After Vulnerability Exploit

In earlier conversation with CCN Lopp spoke about the broader implications of his experiment. He then expressed concerns about some community members’ misplaced trust in the testnet for conducting real-value transactions.

He said: “It’s worse, though, that some people are claiming testnet is reliable enough to use for real value. That concerns me more.”

Now, he adds:

“People can claim whatever they want, and I’m happy to prove them wrong.

“The most important point is more cultural than technical, though. It’s that we have to reinforce the ideal that testnet should be free to use.

“There are technical reasons that have led to testnet coins becoming scarce and thus valuable; we can fix that by resetting testnet for the 3rd time.”

Lopp also said he did not mean to cause harm.  Instead, he said, he wanted to highlight a problem he had previously pointed out. He also mentioned that traditional communication methods, like using development mailing lists, had not effectively resolved matters.

Lopp said that the main hurdle in his recent testnet disruption was not technical, but was rather in achieving rough consensus among developers for a reset. He added that conversations with other developers showed promising progress. Lopp also pointed out that making any changes to the Bitcoin protocol, even those just affecting the testnet, was a process that couldn’t happen overnight. He estimated that it might take weeks or months to fully implement this project.

Reflecting on the history of Bitcoin’s test networks, Lopp said the first two testnets lasted only a couple of years each. On the other hand, Testnet3 has been operational for 13 years. However, he proposed that it might be beneficial to foster a culture of resetting the testnet every few years to better manage vulnerabilities and updates.

He explained:

“Well the only “problem” is actually achieving rough consensus for the reset. From speaking with developers I think we’re making good progress. Making changes to the Bitcoin protocol, even to testnet, is not something that happens overnight. I expect it may take weeks or months to see this project across the finish line.

The first 2 testnets only lasted a couple years each time. Testnet3 has lasted 13 years, which was a pretty good run. But we should probably instill a culture of resetting the testnet every few years.”

Ordinals as Test Case for Data Storage

Lopp responded to CCN‘s question about his recent discussion  with Bitcoin core developer Luke Dashjr and his views on Ordinals, particularly in light of Dashjr’s comments regarding vulnerabilities associated with Ordinal inscriptions on the Bitcoin blockchain.

Lopp acknowledged the innovative nature of Ordinals but also noted the complexities and potential security concerns they introduced. He elaborated on how adding large amounts of non-financial data, such as that enabled by Ordinals, could stress the blockchain’s capacity and potentially expose new vulnerabilities that need careful consideration and management.

Lopp described Ordinals as an opt-in meta protocol that operates on top of Bitcoin. He said that people who were not interested in Ordinals could safely ignore them. Indeed, he added that he hadn’t found any compelling evidence that they posed a risk to Bitcoin itself. As a technologist, Lopp sees Bitcoin as a unique form of data storage with some programmability.

Lopp asserted:

“I’m a technologist, so I’ve always seen Bitcoin as a unique form of data storage that has some limited programmability. I see block space as a public resource, so if you come up with a use case that people find sufficiently valuable to pay for block space then you should be allowed to use the protocol.”

He also sees the blockchain’s block space as a public resource. Lopp believes that if a use case is valuable enough for users to pay for that block space, then it should be able to use the protocol.

He explained:

“Trying to prevent non-financial uses of the Bitcoin blockchain seems to me to be at best a waste of time and at worst potentially hindering innovation and value accrual of Bitcoin itself.”

Innovation Flourishing Despite Scaling Concerns

Lopp also discussed the dynamics surrounding runes on Bitcoin, applying the same rationale he uses for Ordinals. He noted that while one could criticize the system behind runes for encouraging “land grabs”—where people pay high fees to secure block space—he doesn’t believe this negatively affects Bitcoin.

He said:

“You could fault the runes folks for creating a system that incentivizes “land grabs” and thus people bidding insanely high fees for block space, but once again I don’t see how that harms Bitcoin. If anything it’s a boon to miners. Some folks may get upset because they find themselves priced out of making cheap on-chain transactions, but that debate was settled in 2017: bitcoin does not promise cheap on-chain transactions.”

In fact, Lopp suggested that it could be beneficial for miners who profit from the higher transaction fees. He acknowledged this situation might frustrate some users who could not afford cheap on-chain transactions. However, he pointed out the debate over Bitcoin’s role in helping inexpensive on-chain transactions was effectively resolved in 2017, confirming that Bitcoin does not guarantee low-cost on-chain transactions.

In response to CCN’s question about pushing the boundaries of Bitcoin’s original design, Jameson Lopp explained the possibilities and limitations of adapting Bitcoin to perform tasks it was not initially designed to handle.

He asserted:

“We simply don’t know the full extent of what is possible and what is impossible with regard to building on Bitcoin. That’s half the fun of watching folks continue to experiment and innovate.

“My hope is that we get to the point that we have a strong mechanism for performing two-way pegging between the main chain and other layers, which I expect would accelerate innovation in the Bitcoin ecosystem.”

Stablecoins Surge, But Can They Topple BTC Throne? Lopp Weighs In

In response to CCN’s inquiry about the potential of other blockchains achieving global acceptance similar to Bitcoin, Jameson Lopp shared his perspective on the evolving blockchain landscape.

He expressed that while numerous well-funded blockchain projects could potentially reach a level of acceptance similar to that of Bitcoin, the reasons for their adoption might vary significantly. He highlighted the rapid adoption of stablecoins as an example, noting that users generally do not concern themselves with the specific blockchain protocol underlying these assets—they are effectively “chain-agnostic”.

However, Lopp also pointed out that it would be challenging, if not impossible, for any other project to achieve the same status as Bitcoin in terms of being considered credibly neutral money.

Finally, CCN asked Lopp to comment recent on the recent arrest of Roger Ver and the jailing of Changpeng Zhao, he also tweeted about.

He answered:

“I haven’t a clue. I’ve lost a lot of faith in the justice system over the past decade and it always seems like a gamble to me when you enter into a high stakes legal case.”


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