News Release

Patching up security gaps in cryptocurrencies often takes a long time

Reports and Proceedings

Ruhr-University Bochum

Ghassan Karame

image: Ghassan Karame heads the Chair for Information Security at Ruhr University Bochum. view more 

Credit: Michael Schwettmann

A defining characteristic of cryptocurrencies is that they are organised in a decentralised system and are not managed by a central bank like conventional currencies. This creates problems whenever researchers detect security vulnerabilities in the systems of virtual currencies. Sometimes it’s unclear who runs a system, whether a system is affected by a certain vulnerability or whether a bug has been patched. Researchers working with Professor Ghassan Karame, who is a member of the Cluster of Excellence CASA – Cybersecurity in the Age of Large-Scale Adversaries at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, have examined how long it takes until proven security vulnerabilities in various cryptocurrencies are patched up. The Ruhr University’s science magazine Rubin is reporting on their findings.

44 severe security vulnerabilities tested

The source code of Bitcoin, probably the best-known cryptocurrency, is openly available on the internet. Anyone can copy it and launch their own cryptocurrency. This is how a number of Bitcoin variations have been created, which are widely known under the umbrella term altcoins. Security vulnerabilities found in the Bitcoin code usually also affect the altcoin code. Together with his colleagues, Ghassan Karame investigated how different cryptocurrencies have responded to 44 of the most severe network security vulnerabilities that have been documented in recent years.

This included a vulnerability that Karame and his collaborators had exposed in 2015. “Back then, we showed that if we had control over as few as tens of laptops in the system, we could shut down the information flow in the entire Bitcoin system,” as the Chair of Information Security’s head describes the issue.

Many cryptocurrencies take months or even years to patch up vulnerabilities

Using a tool developed specifically for this purpose, the researchers approximated the time it took for various cryptocurrencies to close the security gap described above. “In a nutshell: the results were a shock,” as Ghassan Karame puts it. While Bitcoin fixed the vulnerability in just seven days, it took, for example, Litecoin 114 days, Dogecoin 185 days and Digibyte almost three years. “Three years in which you could have crashed the entire system of the respective cryptocurrency with as few as tens of laptops,” points out Karame.

Invariably, the same pattern emerged over and over again in the analyses of other security gaps: for many altcoins, the number of days it took to fix the flaws was in the three-digit or even four-digit range.

In Rubin, you can read more about why the analysis was such a complex challenge and what Ghassan Karame recommends to users of cryptocurrencies.

Detailed article in science magazine Rubin

You can find a detailed article on this topic in the science magazine Rubin, special edition IT Security. 

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