Bitcoin Problems

A repository of open Bitcoin research problems.

Removing cross-layer links

maintainer: LLFourn status: open categories: lightning, privacy issue: #3

When two lightning nodes wish to inform their peers about changes in the capacity between them they broadcast a channel_announcement or channel_update gossip message. These messages both point to an on-chain UTXO through their short_channel_id field along with the nodes involved (and signatures from all keys). This creates a cross-layer link between the nodes in the layer-2 network and the outputs on the layer-1 blockchain. These cross-layer links are a privacy leak.

Why was the short_channel_id cross-layer link introduced in the first place? The surprising answer is that it is a convenient protection against peer-to-peer message spam. Note carefully that routing payments only requires some estimate of the capacity between nodes not which on-chain outputs funded the intermediate hops. The short_channel_id is a resource constraint on the attacker since creating valid outputs requires confirming layer-1 transactions. Without it a attacker can consume computational and network resources of honest nodes by spamming channel_announcement messages (which honest nodes are obliged to rebroadcast).

In 2021, Romiti et al. published Cross-Layer Deanonymization Methods in the Lightning Protocol where they use this cross-layer link to develop heuristics to:

  • Determine which node funded a lightning channel and therefore which node owns the change output.
  • Assign cooperative channel close outputs to the parties involved.

Being able to associate a lightning node with on-chain outputs hurts both the privacy of the remaining on-chain funds and the user’s future lightning payments. Knowledge about the on-chain entity can be attached to a particular lightning node. Knowledge about the lightning node, like IP address and payment patterns etc can be attached to the on-chain entity.

Far more cross-layer links can be exploited beyond association between short_channel_id and on-chain UTXO. In 2020, Riard et al. published Time-Dilation Attacks on the Lightning Protocol where they suggest several transaction-relay/block-relay based cross-layer links (section 3) to:

  • Determine if a bitcoin node is associated to a lightning node and if yes which one.
  • Or vice versa to which bitcoin node a lightning node is relying on.

It’s also firmly believed among lightning developers that observing or manipulating a bitcoin node mempool content and offchain announced feerate can be leveraged as a cross-layer link.

Impact

Lightning is often presented as a privacy enhancing technology. Unfortunately, cross-layer links make several common lightning usage patterns actually harmful to user privacy. Without these links users could interact with the lightning network without taking precautions to avoid associating their on-chain funds with their lightning node. Another potential benefit of removing these links is that lightning channels would not be as bound to the Bitcoin blockchain and may even exist on sidechains. Cross-layer links are also building blocks to launch advanced attacks damaging users’s coins safety for e.g pinning attacks.

Potential Directions

Use layer-2 funds to prevent spam

Instead of using layer-1 transactions to prevent spam, perhaps existing layer-2 funds could be used to prevent spam. For example if a small lightning payment had to be made to process channel update messages then this may pay for the resources used by peers on the network.

Use one-shot over Tor transaction (re)broadcast

Instead of using the bitcoin node servicing the blockchain view, a Lightning node might use one-shot peer connection over Tor to break the linkage between IP address and transaction. This technique should be particularly beneficial to Lightning hub with high-frequency rebroadcast policies.

Proposed Solutions

There are no proposed solutions for this problem

  1. Romiti et al. inspired this problem with Cross-Layer Deanonymization Methods in the Lightning Protocol.
  2. Kappos et al. apply similar ideas against private channels in An Empirical Analysis of Privacy in the Lightning Network. This shows how private channels are less private if the funding coins can be associated with public channel coins.
  3. Riard et al. concurrently dubbed this problem inter-layer mapping techniques in Time-Dilation Attacks on the Lightning Protocol

Commentary

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