Open source is nice, but is the protocol also open (enough)?
2019-01-15 08:57 openproto [permalink]
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See, this is something I'm very very worried about: things like Bitcoin — big public successful open-source projects — have the appearance of being complete open and public, but the protocol isn't really.
When I was first looking into Bitcoin and learning what it is about, really, I'm quite sure this can only have originated out of a tightly connected bunch of people that were very serious about 'disconnecting' from anything vaguely institutional. Any structure set up by people to govern any kind of transactions between them, has the tendency to limit liberties of people, for the people taking part in the system and sometimes also for those that don't. So it's only natural that Bitcoin at its code is a peer-to-peer protocol.
But. How do people that value anonymity and independence from any system, even get to find each-other and communicate to build things together? Well, the internet of course. But perhaps more importantly — and also since long before the internet — cryptography. Encoding messages so that only the one with the (correct) key can decode and read the message, helps to reduce the cloak-and-dagger stuff to exchanging these keys, and enables to send messages in the open. To the uninitiated onlooker it looks like a meaningless block of code, and in a sense it's exactly that. Unless you what to do with it, and have the key — or would like to have it.
Another use of encoded messages is proving it's really you that originally encoded a message. It's what's behind the Merkle tree that the blockchain runs on. That way the entire trail of transactions is out there in the open, all signed with safely stored private keys. The reader can verify with the public keys, and in fact these verifications buzz around the network and are used to supervise the current state of the blockchain, building a consensus. Sometimes two groups disagree and the chain forks, but that's another story.
The protocol, or the agreement of how to put this into bits and bytes in network packets, can get quite complex. It needs to be really tight and dependable from the get-go, see the article I linked to above. You could write it all down and still have nothing that works, so what typically happens is you create a program that does it and test it to see how it behaves. In this case it's a peer-to-peer networking program so you distribute it among your peers.
But when things get serious, you really need the protocol written out at some point. If you try that and can't figure out any more what really happens, you're in trouble. The protocol could help other people to create programs that do the same, if they would want to. This was something the early internet was all about: people got together to talk about "How are we going to do things?" and then several people went out and did it. And could interoperate just fine. (Or worked out their differences. In the best case.) It typically resulted in clean and clear protocols with the essence up front and a clear path to some additional things.
The existence of the open-source software culture it another story altogether, but I'm very worried it is starting to erode the requirement for clean protocols more and more. If people think "if we can't find out how the protocol exactly works, we can just copy the source of the original client/server" nobody will take the time to guard how the protocol behaves in corner cases and inadvertently backdoors will get left open, ready for use by people with bad intent.