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The US Government Maintains a Fork of Bitcoin

Last Updated March 4, 2021 3:04 PM
P. H. Madore
Last Updated March 4, 2021 3:04 PM

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and other government bodies play a role in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

For starters, SHA-256  and most other hashing algorithms  using in cryptocurrencies have been reviewed and tested by the Institute in the past. Independent cryptographers are frequently consulted by government agencies and scientists. The NSA and NIST occasionally conduct competitions for the development of new cryptographic software. The most recent winner was an algorithm called Keccak, but it is now most often referred to as SHA-3. The majority of hash functions that are submitted to these competitions see use, often wide use, regardless if they win or not.

While the world’s most famous cryptographers work in the private sector, it is fair to say that NSA and other government agencies provide decent career opportunities for up-and-coming cryptographers.

NIST Publishes Paper Suggesting Managed Blockchain with Transparency

Peter Mell of NIST wrote a paper  in recent times entitled “Managed  Blockchain Based Cryptocurrencies with Consensus  Enforced Rules and Transparency.” The gist of the paper is that there is a happy medium between public, wild blockchains like Bitcoin, which follow the laws of consensus and little else, and managed blockchains which give their permissioned owners an untrustworthy amount of paper.

We demonstrate how to implement our approach through modest modifcations to the implicit Bitcoin specifcation, however, our approach can be applied to most any blockchain based cryptocurrency using a variety of consensus methods.

The implications are obvious: the blockchain could potentially be used by the government to issue its own cryptocurrency. A strictly public mining network and blockchain would obviously fail the means test for the government, for multiple reasons including the potential of a 51% attack launched by an unfriendly government. According to the paper, the features which make the Bitcoin protocol attractive to the government are its transparency and, of course, the inability to lose funds on it.

“We provide a novel cryptocurrency architecture which is a hybrid approach where a managed cryptocurrency is maintained through distributed open consensus-based methods. Key to this architecture is the idea of a genesis transaction upon which all other transactions are based and which enables the establishment of a hierarchy of accounts with differing roles It is these roles that enabled us to introduce features from fiat currencies into a cryptocurrency: law enforcement, central banking, and account management,” an excerpt from the paper explains.

“Another novel feature is that the architecture allows the cryptocurrency policy to be maintained dynamically by the currency administrator, but certain policy settings can be made permanent in order to facilitate confidence in the stability of the system. This is especially important for the relationship between the currency administrator and an independent community of miners,” it added.

Democracy is meant to be transparent, and government agencies are supposed to be accountable to the people who elect and pay for them. Current technologies in place don’t always provide for this and there are plenty of opportunities for fraud, waste, and abuse  in the government sector.

The NIST version of the Bitcoin system makes only minor changes to the structure of a Bitcoin transaction in order to allow for the introduction of administrator policies. “Roles” are introduced into Bitcoin transactions, enabling changes to be made in the protocol as a whole. The paper explains that they are using the existing design which enables the spending of coins to additionally “spend roles.” Without getting too technical, it enables the manager of the blockchain to have a great degree of control over the entire pool of money in the system.

The  vin[] field operates  similarly as before. In  Bitcoin, a vin[] field specifies a set of coins from a particular transaction already posted on the blockchain.[…] However,  the vin[] field can also be used to bring roles into a transaction to authorize activities that require roles (which is most any activity in our architecture, depending upon the  specific policy enacted). Functionally, it is like we are ‘spending’ a role to use it to authorize some action given the usual use of a vin[] field (but roles can be ‘spent’  an infinite number of times and are not transferred like coin). A vin[] field can  specify a former transaction where an account was given a role.

Importantly, the design mentions an “independent community of miners.” Several aspects of the idea would require rigorous testing before ever seeing any real-world use – one example that comes to mind is the US Treasury’s blacklist and range of countries US Government and most US citizens cannot do business with. These people would have to be banished from both mining and the possession or use of “USCoin” in order for such a project to be in compliance with US laws.

NIST Tests Ideas on Own Bitcoin Fork

In addition to this paper, NIST has quietly maintained a fork of the Bitcoin software  which attempts to integrate the ideas presented in the paper. Presumably the software has only been run in government labs, but it could inadvertently provide a boost to countries like Sweden which are actively working toward developing their own nationalized cryptocurrencies.

The prospects of a government-backed cryptocurrency in the US are likely years away , but certainly folks within the system have floated the idea multiple times. Government use of blockchain is on the rise, and the arc of history likely points toward cryptocurrencies being at the heart of all financial systems, but only time will tell what shape they will actually take. Aside from operating their own blockchain, governments could simply issue tokens on existing blockchains which follow the rules they decide to put in place. The options are myriad, but one thing is for sure: traditional, fiat-backed currencies are inferior to transparent and modernized digital currencies and will eventually have to be updated.

Featured image from Shutterstock.