Bitcoin transactions are public by nature; they map inputs (unspent utxo’s) to outputs (new unspent utxo’s) in a way that is auditable by anyone with access to the bitcoin blockchain (the history of transactions). Yet interpreting these transactions and the Blockchain is a non-trivial task, because Bitcoin transaction are not equivalent to Bitcoin payments.
The Problem #
Because anyone can see the links between transaction inputs and outputs it’s possible for anyone to analyse previous and future transaction behavior in an attempt to link multiple Bitcoin addresses to the same entity, this process is sometimes called clustering.
Some companies specialize in this kind of analysis of the bitcoin blockchain and are known as ‘Chain Analysis’ companies. Some well known examples are Chainalysis & Crystal.
These companies claim that the purpose of this clustering is to ‘detect fraud’ or ‘identify criminals’. Despite their best efforts it is highly likely that they will at some point misidentify the owner of a utxo resulting in wrongful conviction as law enforcement blindly trusts these systems.
Alternately, clustering could just as easily be done by malicious adversaries who wish to identify people to target for ransom or blackmail.
Future criminals may intentionally create transactions in order to trick chain analysis companies into misidentifying users, allowing them to evade detection or shift the blame to an innocent person (after all, who continues searching for evidence after the criminal has been caught?)
Crucially, a user whose transactions / utxo’s have been clustered will be unaware that this has happened and once the transactions have been made it is impossible to erase the trail on the blockchain.
The Solution #
Fortunately an innovative method of obfuscating the on-chain links between utxo’s was explained by Greg Maxwell back in 2013 - he called it CoinJoin.
The basic idea is that a transaction is created with inputs from multiple users.
The transaction is constructed such that it is not possible for someone analyzing the blockchain to determine which output belongs to which user.
Let us look at a worked example;
Alice, Bob and Charlie are three individual bitcoin users looking to CoinJoin their utxo’s
- Input 1: Alice’s 0.1 BTC utxo from an exchange.
- Input 2: Bob’s 0.1 BTC utxo from the sale of a baseball card to a guy online.
- Input 3: Charlie’s 0.1 BTC utxo which he wants to one day give to his baby daughter.
Background information on why each participant wants to mix:
- Alice doesn’t want the exchange to monitor her spending.
- Bob doesn’t want the baseball guy to see how much bitcoin he has.
- Charlie he lives in a despotic country where owning bitcoin is illegal.
The CoinJoin transaction takes these three inputs and constructs a transaction which creates 3 new outputs
Input 1: 0.1 BTC (Alice) Output 1: 0.1 BTC
Input 2: 0.1 BTC (Bob) -> Output 2: 0.1 BTC
Input 3: 0.1 BTC (Charlie) Output 3: 0.1 BTC
It is not possible for someone analyzing this transaction to identify which output is owned by which user.
The Details #
The CoinJoin process explained above obfuscates the on-chain links. This is a start - but as with many things the devil is in the details.
Lets break the process of participating in a CoinJoin down into 3 stages.
- Stage 1 | Pre-Mix : How you put inputs into a CoinJoin in a privacy preserving way
- Stage 2 | Mix : How the CoinJoin itself happens in a privacy preserving way
- Stage 3 | Post-Mix : How you use the CoinJoin outputs in a privacy preserving way
Stage 1 | Pre-mix #
I will add information about Stage 1 in the near future.
Stage 2 | Mix #
How the CoinJoin itself happens in a privacy preserving way.
Someone has to coordinate the construction of the CoinJoin transaction, lets work through the possible coordination approaches. We will end up with the following result:
|Guaranteed Risk of Privacy Loss
|Guaranteed Risk of Bitcoin Loss
Coordination Approach 1 #
(WARNING - DO NOT DO THIS)
If Alice, Bob and Charlie are acquainted and fully trust each other with their bitcoin and their privacy then any one of them could coordinate the construction of this transaction with minimal effort.
They would all share the raw private keys of their coins, one user would import these coins into a wallet and make a transaction paying out to each users new address.
With this approach there is a clear and present risk of both privacy loss & bitcoin loss.
Privacy Loss: With this approach the peer constructing the CoinJoin is REQUIRED to know all the links between inputs and outputs, thus the other members of the CoinJoin are trusting their peer with their privacy.
Bitcoin Loss: With this approach the peer constructing the CoinJoin is REQUIRED to be able to spend each input, thus the other members of the CoinJoin are trusting their peer with their bitcoin while the CoinJoin is underway.
Coordination Approach 2a #
An incremental improvement would be for one member of the group to collect the required information from each user and create a transaction which each user then individually signs.
With this approach there is a clear and present risk of privacy loss.
- Privacy Loss: With this approach the peer constructing the CoinJoin is REQUIRED to know all the links between inputs and outputs, thus the other members of the CoinJoin are trusting their peer with their privacy.
However, the benefit with this approach is that it does not REQUIRE users to risk loss of bitcoin.
This is not to say that it’s impossible for a CoinJoin tool using this approach to steal/lose bitcoin, rather that this approach makes it POSSIBLE that the CoinJoin tool can be designed in such a way as to eliminate the risk of bitcoin loss.
Coordination Approach 2b #
Another direction to improve this scheme is, if a central coordinating actor knows the mapping, instead of the parties involved.
This has much the same privacy / bitcoin loss risks as approach 2a.
Coordination Approach 3 #
It is clearly preferable if Alice, Bob and Charlie can coordinate the construction of a transaction without having to trust anyone with either their privacy or their bitcoin.
Private coordination can be achieved by using blinded signatures to construct the transaction in such a way that each participant;
- Retains full control of their bitcoin at all times
- Is the sole individual who knows which output belongs to them
I won’t go into the details here (at least not for now) but suffice to say that this is possible and much better than Coordination Approach 1 or 2.
Again, this is not to say that it’s impossible for a CoinJoin tool using this approach to steal/lose bitcoin / have privacy risks, rather that this approach makes it POSSIBLE that the CoinJoin tool can be designed in such a way as to eliminate the risk of privacy loss / bitcoin loss.
Coordination Approach 3 makes it possible to coordinate the CoinJoin without the user losing any privacy. That said, this is just one stage of the process and thus does not guarantee that the whole CoinJoin process is private.
Put another way, Coordination Approach 3 is required for complete network privacy, but is not sufficient.
Stage 3 | Post-mix #
I will add information about Stage 3 in the near future.
The Implementations #
There have been many projects which attempted to make it possible for users to CoinJoin their utxos, the three that are currently active are:
I will attempt to provide a brief explanation of each tool.
The core principle of JoinMarket is that markets are an efficient way to incentivize users to CoinJoin.
- Stage 1 | Pre-Mix : Blockchain communications done over Bitcoin Core and optionally over Tor
- Stage 2 | Mix : Coordination Approach 2/a
- Stage 3 | Post-Mix : Bitcoin Core
The wiki describes this eloquently:
A CoinJoin transaction requires other people to take part. The right resources (coins) have to be in the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity. This isn’t a software or tech problem but an economic problem. JoinMarket works by creating a new kind of market that allocates these resources in the best way.
This works by allowing coinjoin transactions to be paid-for. On one side there are time-rich coinjoiners who collect fees when other peers create coinjoins with them, called market makers. On the other side there are time-stressed coinjoiners who can coinjoin instantly and pay a fee, called market takers.
Put simply, JoinMarket makes it possible for individuals to pay other individuals to mix with them. Because this is a free market there are competitive fees.
I haven’t dedicated enough time to getting JoinMarket running - the documentation is thorough but somewhat involved. I will provide a more detailed review / comparison once I have tested the software myself - In the meantime I encourage you to give it a go also.
Wasabi consists of a wallet which allows you to receive bitcoin, optionally mix, and then send bitcoin.
- Stage 1 | Pre-Mix : All communication done over Tor, BIP 158 Block Filters (see note)
- Stage 2 | Mix : Coordination Approach 3
- Stage 3 | Post-Mix : utxo labelling & coin control, broadcast over Tor via random node
Note on BIP 158
From the Wasabi Docs
The Wasabi coordinator will send you … block filters, and you check locally if the block contains a transaction with your coins. If not, then the filter is stored for later reference and for syncing new wallets. If yes, then the wallet connects to a random Bitcoin peer-to-peer full node to request this entire block. … For every block download, Wasabi establishes a new and unique tor identity, meaning that it is not easy to link that it is the same entity downloading all these blocks.
Note: BIP 158 is not as good as running your own node. You trust
- The Wasabi server gives you the correct filters
- The Wasabi server to not withhold any filters
Whirlpool is a mixing tool which extends the functionality of the Samourai Wallet (SW) application for Android to include CoinJoin capabilities.
- Stage 1 | Pre-Mix : All communication done over Tor, Connect to own node or SW developers node (see note)
- Stage 2 | Mix : Coordination Approach 3
- Stage 3 | Post-Mix : utxo labelling & coin control, broadcast over Tor via your own node or SW developers node (see note)
Note on using Own node or SW developers node
Unless you connect to your own node you are trusting the SW developers not to log (I will expand on this in the near future)
- You should run your own DOJO node if you are using SW
- If you are mixing and not connected to your own node you are at risk of damaging your privacy (again you are trusting the SW developers not to log)
- If you are mixing and are connected to your own node but are exclusively mixing with participants who aren’t connected to their own node be aware that you are trusting SW developers not to log to gain any privacy benefit
- If you are mixing and are connected to your own node and are mixing with at least one participant who is also connected to their own node you will still get some privacy benefit if the SW developers are logging