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WHITEPAPER

SECURE COMMUNICATIONS USING BLOCKCHAIN

Secure Communications Using Blockchain

SUMMARY

This whitepaper is intended to discuss the inherent weaknesses in today’s communications and propose solutions to upgrade internet protocols leveraging decentralization and blockchain technology to secure messaging against bad actors and network failure.

AUTHORS

Stacey Schneider
Kyle Thomas

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Road To Modernizing Communications

Today's internet operates on underlying protocols and services that are susceptible to centralized control, surveillance, and manipulation. Invented during the first stage of the public internet, the core protocols and services depended on a high level of trust between network nodes.

Based largely on the work started in the 1960s by the Department of Defense (DoD),  today’s standard model for networking serves only to establish connectivity—and fails to protect user privacy or data security.

These weaknesses create a haven for bad actors, and hamper the general utility and security of the internet. According to Cybersecurity Ventures, cybercrime will cost the world in excess of $6 trillion annually by 2021, up from $3 trillion in 2015. However, the real costs to businesses is how much time and money they spend securing data in a patently unsecure environment. For companies like JP Morgan Chase, these costs reach over $600M a year.

What’s more, 70% of data is created by individuals, yet 80% of data is managed by companies—and individuals are unhappy with their success record. This is why it is time to modernize internet communications to be secure by default.

Infographic - Cost of Cybercrime

How Blockchain Works To Secure Communications

decentralized communications using blockchain

As the age of decentralization unfolds, it is time to modernize our approach to secure, stable and self-sovereign communications by employing peer-to-peer networks. By upgrading to a decentralized network layer, we are able to abstract away the underlying geographically-traceable internet transport layer, secure data contents, and provide a more stable infrastructure for the internet to thrive.

A blockchain is a growing list of records, bundled together in structures called blocks that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, other headers and transaction data. Complete copies of blockchains are federated across nodes, that work together to create an open, immutable ledger of truth using sophisticated consensus algorithms.

Designed as a way to safely share private data on public infrastructure, blockchain technology provides a modern substrate for communications that decentralizes control and eliminates single points of failure, while also providing greater data security.

Centralized, Distributed, and Decentralization Networking

centralized, decentralized and distributed definitions

By storing duplicate copies of data across peer-to-peer networks, a properly designed blockchain eliminates a number of risks that come with data being held centrally including surveillance, control and outright system failure.

In this paper, we will explore how distributed, decentralized networks help improve communications infrastructure availability, while dramatically improving data privacy.

Encryption

Modern encryption is also an integral part of blockchain’s transport protocols, ensuring data privacy and eliminating threats of surveillance by default. Blockchain provides protocols for one-to-one and one-to-many encryption using asymmetric key pairs associated with each node. Keys decrypt data packets intended for specific nodes. When one node sends a packet to another, it encrypts the packet using the public or pre-arranged shared key of the intended recipient node.

This paper will discuss how increased levels of encryption improves data privacy, and limits the ability of bad actors to intercept or manipulate communications.

Vulnerabilities in Existing Communications Protocols

internet protocol suite OSI

The Internet protocol (IP) suite provides end-to-end data communication specifying how data should be packetized, addressed, transmitted, and routed. The IP suite is the standard network model and communication protocol stack used across computer networks.

It is also commonly referred to as TCP/IP because the foundational protocols in the suite are the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). In more technical conversations, typically the IP Suite is broken down further into seven parts, known as the Open Systems Interconnection model (OSI model).

In this paper, we will take a closer look at the four main areas that categorize Internet Protocol suite: Packets, Addresses, Transmission and Routing. We will look at each sequentially to explain the vulnerabilities that span multiple network layers, and how blockchain addresses those weaknesses.

Weaknesses in Packetization: Domain Name System (DNS)

dns server routing

The ability to replace memorable text in the form of URLs with IP network addresses is a critical feature for practical internet communications. For instance, it is easier to remember google.com versus 64.233.177.100.

Currently, the internet relies on the Domain Name System (DNS) that was developed in 1985. It is essentially a centralized database that rationalizes IP addresses with their human readable equivalents. Think of it as the internet’s address book—where every host is listed and can be traced using the WHOIS service.

Domain name registration is managed centrally by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization headquartered in California. Services that rely on DNS are subject to disruption and control by powerful individuals and organizations. It is a relatively trivial task to use DNS and/or takedown notices to make content inaccessible by coordinating with the few powerful organizations that control the internet’s address book.

Additionally, a centralized DNS registry poses a single point of failure for the internet. There are just 13 authoritative name servers that serve the DNS root zone, commonly known as the “root servers.” This reliance upon a handful of trusted actors, creates a small number of points of failure. While these root servers are clustered with a network of about 1000 servers in many countries around the world, the clusters are subject to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

If any one or all of the trusted CAs fail, URLs could be unresolvable globally. This has happened, and will continue to happen as more devices are networked on the internet.

List of Root Servers

HOSTNAME IP ADDRESS MANAGER
a.root-servers.net 198.41.0.4, 2001:503:ba3e::2:30 VeriSign, Inc.
b.root-servers.net 199.9.14.201, 2001:500:200::b University of Southern California (ISI)
c.root-servers.net 192.33.4.12, 2001:500:2::c Cogent Communications
d.root-servers.net 199.7.91.13, 2001:500:2d::d University of Maryland
e.root-servers.net 192.203.230.10, 2001:500:a8::e NASA (Ames Research Center)
f.root-servers.net 192.5.5.241, 2001:500:2f::f Internet Systems Consortium, Inc.
g.root-servers.net 192.112.36.4, 2001:500:12::d0d US Department of Defense (NIC)
h.root-servers.net 198.97.190.53, 2001:500:1::53 US Army (Research Lab)
i.root-servers.net 192.36.148.17, 2001:7fe::53 Netnod
j.root-servers.net 192.58.128.30, 2001:503:c27::2:30 VeriSign, Inc
k.root-servers.net 193.0.14.129, 2001:7fd::1 RIPE NCC
l.root-servers.net 199.7.83.42, 2001:500:9f::42 ICANN
m.root-servers.net 202.12.27.33, 2001:dc3::35 WIDE Project

Securing Network Packets With Blockchain

The blockchain and Web 3 community is working on alternative name resolution protocols such as the Handshake Protocol. Handshake is an ongoing project nearing public launch to establish a decentralized network of DNS servers that utilize cryptoeconomic incentives to coordinate consensus on the association between names and certificates.

The goal of the Handshake project is not to replace all of DNS, but to replace the root zone file and the root servers with more open and democratized alternatives. This will effectively commoditize DNS under an open source ethos, allowing root zones to become uncensorable, permissionless, and free of centralized gatekeepers such as ICANN. This freedom will allow the internet to grow unhindered by unfair, centralized control while lowering the economic barriers that limit internet ubiquity.

Weaknesses in Internet Protocol Addresses

TCP header contents

An Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a numerical label assigned to each device connected to a computer network. All communications sent through the internet are routed using a public IP addresses.

An IP address is similar to a traditional postal letter. Comprised of a header and a payload, the header requires public addressing readable by anyone to assist in routing similar to address information on an envelope. The contents, or payload, are obscured inside the envelope itself. Any additional wrapping, such as encryption, can be added as desired for safety.

The packet header contains publicly readable information such as source and destination network addresses, error detection codes, and sequencing information. The public nature of the header information means it is possible to sniff out information transmitted between two endpoints, and to reconstruct messages comprised of multiple packets.

To complicate matters further, in traditional communications, packets are rarely encrypted. According to the Breach Level Index, of all the data stolen since 2013, just 4% was encrypted and rendered unusable by attackers.

Since each Internet Service Provider (ISP) is responsible for different ranges of IP addresses, and registering the owners assigned for each IP addresses, it is fairly easy to request information from them to discover the locations and identities associated with a specific endpoint, behind which one or more physical and virtual devices may exist. Often, web search engines can locate this information without a formal or legal request. The geographic location of an IP address can usually be pinpointed within blocks of the physical location, and owner contact details including phone numbers and mailing addresses accompany the registration.

However, it is also possible to manipulate these IP addresses using proxies, onion routing or VPNs, essentially spoofing the origination point of a message. This is currently the only means of protection to obscure a message endpoint and protect it from being physically targeted or remotely accessed through unscrupulous means.

Protecting IP Addresses with Decentralized Communications

decentralized TCP headers

A better way to protect the identity and location of a message endpoint is to decentralize addressing.  Decentralization federates the packets across a multitude of nodes and can be designed to obscure specific addressing by using the blockchain as a message bus, creating additional barriers against surveillance and tampering. Replication of the packet across multiple nodes also adds redundancy of the message for added deliverability and fault tolerance.

Using peer-to-peer networks, blockchain technology can create a layer of abstraction that makes the geographical locations and identities of nodes difficult to determine, preventing them from being targeted. Encrypted messages are published broadly on a blockchain network. Destination addresses for the intended recipient fall into the encrypted payload, and only users with a corresponding key can decrypt and read the messages.

While TCP headers are still in plain text, the final address is now obscured. Public blockchains, like Ethereum, that support large volumes of messages work to drive message activity toward anonymity. Large volumes of diverse traffic on a network make it harder to pinpoint patterns and locations of senders.

A decentralization system also creates copies of the message across a multitude of nodes, who each agree to an immutable record of the original message’s contents. This consensus requires 51% or more of the nodes to simultaneously be changed to alter the message contents, making the messages resistant to manipulation or data loss.

Smart logic rules and filters can work to speed up delivery and reduce the number of message copies, by funneling publishing of the packet contents across public or localized decentralized networks.

A robust authentication system, complete with a permissioned address book and biometric two-factor authentication, will add confidence that messages are from the ascribed user, while simultaneously preventing spam.

Weaknesses in Data Transmission

Transmission of data across the internet typically relies on HTTP. However, to secure the communication over HTTPS and gain the little green lock on a browser as proof, sites need to purchase and publish a digital certificate. Certificate authorities (CA) are trusted third parties that issue digital certificates, which are data files used to cryptographically link an entity with a public key.

These trusted records are sectioned by Top Level Domains (TLDs) across CAs. For instance, Verisign is custodian of all named owners with .com addresses.

Certificate authorities are centralized points of failure, and are frequent targets of attack.

Even decentralized infrastructure suffers from continued reliance on this system. If a bad actor is able to obtain a private key for a digital certificate, users returning to an affected site can be presented with a valid HTTPS certificate for the correct domain, and be directed to a malicious web server or worse—unwittingly execute a malicious payload. Over a billion dollars of cryptocurrency have been lost using attacks on CAs. Even more has been stolen in fiat.

Additionally, most message communications today are hosted. Hosted email and chat provides some tremendous benefits for certain users. There is little to set up, it is cheap and someone else manages the headache of administration. Hosted services afford users the luxury of automated backups and syndication to multiple devices for a seamless user experience across platforms.

However, the nature of creating a centralized repository for information also positions an administrator to be able to access and possibly divulge information, posing serious concerns for privacy and civil liberties.

As always, centralization also creates a single point of failure.

Self-sovereign Message Transmission with Blockchain

Blockchain technology like the Handshake Protocol creates the ability for canonical ownership records by recording in order that a record exists before another. This confirms that Alice registered a domain name before Bob, and cryptographically signs ownership. Since it is recorded in a decentralized manner, the record is immutable across the network, eliminating the vulnerabilities created by centralized CAs.

Similarly, decentralized infrastructure reduces the possibility of data loss in the case of a server failure for email or messages, since messages are replicated across a diverse network. It also provides a secure, uncensored mechanism to restore message history in the case of a mail client failure.

Well-architected blockchain-based messaging can dramatically enhance user privacy. With the infrastructure to send and store encrypted messages distributed across a blockchain and distributed file systems, no single party would have the ability to read each user's messages.

Additionally, traditional messaging systems are “receiver-based,” in that the recipient gets to decide how long messages live and how they are shared. A blockchain based system can change this to be “sender-based” where the sender decides how long a message can persist or be shared during addressing. Smart contracts coupled with threshold cryptography for multi-party computation can enforce these rules across all nodes and devices, rendering it unreadable as the sender prefers. These safeguards create confidence that private messages aren't floating around uncontrolled or longer than you want them to.

Weaknesses in Routing

A routing protocol specifies how routers communicate with each other to transmit data packets between any two nodes on a computer network. Routers are the "traffic directors" of the Internet.

Each router only has a prior knowledge of networks attached to it directly. A routing protocol then shares this information progressively throughout the network. This is how routers gain knowledge of the topology of the network.

Since all traffic routing goes through an ISP, it can be interrupted or delayed through hijacking or constraining just a few IP prefixes. This can interrupt connectivity or create secondary points of failure for devices or applications on particular IP prefixes. This is also how national firewalls are created.

Additionally, routing protocols socialize information in plain text, creating ample opportunity for interception, and the possibility for cache poisoning, including at the DNS level.

Securing Routing with Blockchain

configurable onion routing magic bus

Routing needs to adopt modern security protocols where each connection point securely peers with every other point, regardless of ISP host, using decentralized authentication.

This untethered-to-ISPs architecture could also support a public voting mechanism that establishes global consensus for socialising and optimizing routes. It would also be possible to provide configurable access to record network activity in a ledger for review—something that can be important in a disaster scenario or on a battlefield.

However, one of the biggest benefits for communications across a decentralized network remains that routing becomes compartmentalized and makes end-to-end surveillance improbable.

Despite their use of encryption, conventional networking systems still allow malicious actors to monitor public message header information. Blockchain allows nodes to prevent this using configurable onion routing.

In onion routing mode, data packets are routed to dynamic zones of nodes whose address matches the partially disclosed destination address. It is possible to configure the level of address specificity when addressing packets at the node level. Too much specificity increases the chances that malicious actors could identify patterns of communication between nodes, while too little increases congestion and transmission costs.

To facilitate session management, nodes rely on a previously agreed topic ID to identifying packets they are interested in viewing. Blockchain can provide additional session management protocols that help applications keep track of and initiate separate data streams. When a new session is negotiated between nodes or groups of nodes, a topic ID is generated and shared privately with all session participants, who then listen for future packets with the same topic ID.

Topic ID generation is cryptographically secure, enabling multiple disparate communication streams on the same network. To decrypt the message the receiver will still need to be in possession of a private key. It would be extremely difficult for bad actors to recognize communication patterns—another reason that busy, public blockchains like Ethereum are ideal network candidates for secure messaging.

This system of communication compartmentalization makes blockchain networks highly resistant to surveillance attempts, as well as attempts to target specific endpoints for denial of service. The combination of encryption with onion routing enables a truly unprecedented level of security.

Building a Modern Communications Platform Using Blockchain

The advancements of the past decades on modern cryptography and distributed systems paved the way forward for a new, publicly accessible, fair platform to modernize message passing. Based on blockchain technology, these modern approaches to secure messaging extends far beyond fintech applications, and very much applies to secure interpersonal and machine-readable communications.

Decentralization eliminates many central points of failure and control, creating a more stable backplane to establish connectivity and trust. It also provides critical data security services by default, something that will be essential as the Internet-of-Things and the internet in general becomes more pervasive. These tenets create an open, trustless environment that will allow users to communicate freely and safely by default.

Importantly, it also builds in standards for data privacy and security that are essential for operating in today’s digital age.

There is still work to be done to connect all layers of the IP suite together to create a unified, secure messaging platform, however the components and technology are now mature enough that it is possible.

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