Bitcoin’s distributed network – thousands of computers connected over the Internet – is a key component to that system’s design, but the eccentric Mazières says that makes Bitcoin slower and less secure than the world’s financial infrastructure should be.
Mazières calls his new cryptocurrency protocol SCP, and the project is being adopted by a nonprofit called Stellar, whose original cryptocurrency project was developed by Ripple Labs. After Stellar’s system “forked” into two networks last year, changes were needed. Mazières’s new design avoids that issue altogether, leading top computer scientists to approve of the Stanford Computer scientist ‘s overall design.
Taking leave from Stanford to work on the project four days a week as Stellar’s chief scientist, Mazières will enjoy the backing of major payment startups like Stripe.
Instead of mining, which is key to the Bitcoin infrastructure, each person running the SCP software must identify a few other trusted participants to correctly apply cryptographic rules for validating transactions. As Technology Review writes:
Each instance of the software will recognize transactions only once a certain majority fraction of its trusted partners have also signed off. And the trust relationships are all public.
Mazières says the math shows that those rules will allow his system to reliably verify transactions much more quickly and with less energy.
“The security proposition of Bitcoin is that the people who invested in mining infrastructure can be trusted, but that may not be true,” Dan Boneh, a Stanford professor unaffiliated with Mazières’s work, says. “Here I can choose for myself who to trust.”
Boneh also says SCP enables use of stronger cryptography, while Bitcoin’s cryptography has limitations.
“By design, you can’t crank up the hardness of Bitcoin to the point it’s infeasible for a well-resourced attacker,” says Boneh. “With this you can.”
Emin Gün Sirer, an associate professor at Cornell University, agrees with the other researcher’s assessment that SCP holds some advantages over Bitcoin.
“The protocol looks sound,” says Sirer.
SCP could be compromised if, for instance, participants in the system chose trusted partners so that too few overlaps were created, thus failing to connect the network into a unified vector. An attacker could theoretically create this situation, implies Sirer. He argues, however, this does not hold implications for the technology, but, rather, for people.
“This is a social thing, not a technical thing,” says Sirer.
Mazières claims the possibilities alluded to by Sirer are possible, yet unlikely. He foresees large organizations – like banks or other financial institutions – securing the SCP network. Still, the perceived problem remains, he admits.
“People are always a weak point,” he submits.