The perils of a decentralized web living in the centralized world


On January 26th, the Internet came to a standstill on much of the east coast. Email services went out; YouTube videos flickered in the middle of the stream. Millions were likely affected, if only temporarily. However, the outage, which is due to an increase in traffic, underscores the metastatic vulnerabilities that affect the way most people in the world trade, consume entertainment, and communicate.

The effects of such failures should be viewed as particularly alarming for those in Cryptoland: namely, for the ever-growing number of participants in an emerging decentralized ecosystem for transferring peer-to-peer values ​​using Bitcoin (BTC) who are building smart contracts on top of Ethereum or launch any number of platforms and tokens that perform myriad functions and services.

Indeed, such outages pose a serious challenge to building the hoped-for future of a decentralized web that is more secure, reliable, and secure.

Every time Gmail or Telegram goes down due to such glitches on the existing web, it is a reminder of how exposed this emerging decentralized world is to centralized security flaws. And it’s something of an Achilles heel that hasn’t been treated satisfactorily.

In short, the full bloom of blockchain and other decentralized systems depends on the reliability of an existing web architecture, which is not only highly centralized but also needs a facelift.

Internet: Beauty and the Beast

As beautiful as the original architecture – and believe me, it’s beautiful – the internet as we know it has gotten a bit clunky. It’s been decades since it was founded and it shows its proverbial age. Proof of this is the rising number of outages that have disrupted key cloud services like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, as well as mission-critical messaging platforms like Slack. The resulting losses for businesses as well as everyday web users and crypto enthusiasts could run into billions.

Last year, for example, Cloudflare went down and the resulting drop in Bitcoin transactions was noticeable. In this case, it is noteworthy that the Bitcoin network itself did not fail. The peer-to-peer consensus-building infrastructure on which it is built was completely intact at all times. However, the decline in completed transactions indicates a serious system weakness with so many crypto users relying on centralized storage and exchange options. And many of these services were in turn dependent on Cloudflare.

The example above shows how in many cases the profitability of these services has been reduced to a single point of failure – in stark contrast to the raison d’être of Bitcoin and blockchains in general.

It’s a problem that unfortunately got significantly worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the internet has become even more central to our work and personal lives. According to recent data released by ThousandEyes, a network intelligence company, global internet disruption increased when the pandemic broke out last year. Rising usage rates have been cited as the reason for the outages, which increased 63% in March compared to pre-pandemic times. By June there were an estimated 44% more disruptions than at the beginning of last year.

It’s safe to say that given that a staggering 25% of all Ethereum workloads worldwide run on Amazon Web Services, there should be more than just cause for concern. At this point in time, every single blockchain-based application, whether Bitcoin, Polkadot or Cosmos, is completely powerless without the help of a handful of central, internet-based services and infrastructures.

The solution exists

However, this is not meant to convey pessimism or hopelessness, as there are solutions to the problem that can be implemented relatively quickly and without a radical overhaul of the elements already in use. One way is to take advantage of the current strength of the Internet and improve the mechanics by focusing on the plethora of nodes and redundancies in data that is already built into the system.

Think of a node as a conduit for channeling the data you rely on. And with a smarter, more dynamic routing protocol that can easily be layered over the existing Internet, for example, we can more efficiently route transmissions around the blocked or congested nodes, and instead get data from the nodes over which such data can be transmitted more freely flow.

In addition, there is the problem of solving the underlying security problems. In particular, a study of the Internet’s standard routing technology, known as the Border Gateway Protocol or BGP, reveals vulnerabilities that are currently being exploited by organized attackers and that have potentially far-reaching effects on all forms of Internet-based applications. Not only are such attacks increasing in frequency, they also threaten more costly outages and delays.

For example, in April 2018, criminal actors used vulnerabilities in the core Internet infrastructure to redirect users of an Ethereum wallet developer’s website to a phishing site. This compromised their account credentials and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of cryptocurrency from them. It’s complicated, but during the attack, the Internet’s authoritative routing servers were corrupted and instructed to route traffic to IP addresses owned by the criminal actors rather than the intended IP destination that would normally have been specified by the BGP .

The weakness lies in the fact that the BGP was developed when there were far fewer internet users, which means that the original architects understandably did not foresee that the network would need to be protected from so many malicious actors today. Thus, this routing protocol can easily be manipulated for nefarious purposes.

Blockchain is the answer

Blockchain technology offers a potentially critical solution to this problem. Although IPs could still be hijacked at the lowest level, a blockchain-based routing layer would allow companies to connect their devices and infrastructures over a private network without revealing their IP addresses – the ones that bad actors could use to target their respective services. Within this layer, any connection between devices can be encrypted without using the centralized authorities that represent a major security flaw in current architectures.

In fact, I hope that the more efficient forwarding of internet data and the use of blockchain functions to strengthen security will create new synergies between the existing and the emerging decentralized web. It’s just a matter of time I think. And when that happens, the sky’s the limit for Bitcoin, Ethereum, and all the incredible blockchain-based systems that are being built.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are the sole rights of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Jonah Simanavicius is the Chief Technology Officer of Syntropy, a San Francisco-based company focused on building a programmable Internet that delivers novel technologies to make web interactions faster, more reliable, and more secure for businesses and everyday users. He is responsible for all technology development in the company, including the SDN engine, platform, network and blockchain strategy. Previously, he worked on the engineering teams at the Royal Bank of Scotland and JPMorgan Chase.