Towards More Reliable Bitcoin Timestamps

03/24/2018 ∙ by Pawel Szalachowski, et al. ∙ Singapore University of Technology and Design 0

Bitcoin provides freshness properties by forming a blockchain where each block is associated with its timestamp and the previous block. Due to these properties, the Bitcoin protocol is being used as a decentralized, trusted, and secure timestamping service. Although Bitcoin participants which create new blocks cannot modify their order, they can manipulate timestamps almost undetected. This undermines the Bitcoin protocol as a reliable timestamping service. In particular, a newcomer that synchronizes the entire blockchain has a little guarantee about timestamps of all blocks. In this paper, we present a simple yet powerful mechanism that increases the reliability of Bitcoin timestamps. Our protocol can provide evidence that a block was created within a certain time range. The protocol is efficient, backward compatible, and surprisingly, currently deployed SSL/TLS servers can act as reference time sources. The protocol has many applications and can be used for detecting various attacks against the Bitcoin protocol.



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I Introduction

Bitcoin [18] is a cryptocurrency successful beyond all expectations. As a consequence of this success and properties of Bitcoin, developers and researchers try to reuse the Bitcoin infrastructure to build new or enhance existing systems. One class of such systems is a decentralized timestamping service. For instance, the OpenTimestamps project [1] aims to standardize blockchain timestamping, where a timestamp authority, known from the previous proposals [2], is replaced by a blockchain. Other, more focused applications that rely on the blockchain timestamps include trusted record-keeping service [15, 10], decentralized audit systems [16, 20], document signing infrastructures [14], timestamped commitments [5], or secure off-line payment systems [7]. Reliable timestamps are also vital for preventing various attacks against the Bitcoin protocol. For instance, Heilman proposed a scheme [13] which with unforgeable timestamps can protect from the selfish mining strategy [9].

By design, the Bitcoin protocol preserves the order of events (i.e., weak freshness), however, accurate time of events (i.e., strong freshness) is questionable, despite the fact that each block has a timestamp associated. In practice, Bitcoin timestamps can differ in hours from the time maintained by Bitcoin participants (nodes), and in theory can differ radically from the actual time (i.e., time outside the Bitcoin network). Effectively, the accurate time cannot be determined from the protocol, which limits capabilities of the Bitcoin protocol as a timestamping service, and which impacts the security of the protocol [11].

In this work, we propose a new mechanism for improving the security of Bitcoin timestamps. In our protocol, external timestamp authorities can be used to assert a block creation time, instead of solely trusting timestamps put by block creators. Our scheme is efficient, simple, practical, does not require any additional infrastructure nor any changes to the Bitcoin protocol, thus can be deployed today. Interestingly, currently existing SSL/TLS servers can act as time authorities.

Ii Background and Preliminaries

Ii-a Freshness in the Bitcoin Blockchain

Bitcoin is an open cryptocurrency and transaction system. Each transaction is announced to the Bitcoin network, where nodes called miners collect and validate all non-included transactions and try to create (mine) a block of transactions by solving a cryptographic proof-of-work puzzle, whose difficulty is set such that a new block is mined about every 10 minutes. Each block has a header that contains the block’s metadata. Transactions are represented as leaves of a Merkle tree [17] whose root is included in the header; hence, with the header, it is possible to prove that a transaction is part of the given block. Every block header contains also a field with a hash of the previous header to link the blocks together. Due to this link, the blocks create an append-only blockchain. Additionally, headers include Unix timestamps that describe when the corresponding block was mined. These timestamps are used as an input for proof-of-work puzzles and are designed to impede an adversary from manipulating the blockchain.

Freshness properties offered by the Bitcoin protocol are unclear. Since the blockchain is append-only, weak freshness is provided by design (i.e., blocks are ordered in the chronological order). Timestamps associated with blocks are validated in a special way. Namely, a node considers a new block’s timestamp as valid if:

  1. the median timestamp of previous eleven blocks, and

  2. network time (defined as the median of the timestamps returned by all nodes connected to the node).

Each node maintains its local Bitcoin timer, which is defined as the node’s local system time plus the difference between this time and the network time. However, the timer cannot be adjusted more than 70 minutes from the local system time.

As it is not required that all nodes have accurate time, timestamps encoded in headers may not be even in order, and their accuracy is estimated to hours. Manipulation of the Bitcoin network time is possible and can result in severe attacks 

[4]. Furthermore, as Bitcoin timestamps depend only on time of nodes, timestamps can differ radically from the actual time, outside the network. Another issue is that nodes synchronizing the entire blockchain have hardly any guarantees about the previous blocks’ creation times. Given that, it is clear that the Bitcoin protocol does not provide strong freshness, what limits the Bitcoin blockchain applicability for time-sensitive applications (like accurate timestamping).

Ii-B Timestamping Service

The time-stamp protocol (TSP) [2] is a standard timestamping protocol built on top of the X.509 public key infrastructure (PKI). In the protocol, a client that wishes to timestamp data contacts a timestamp authority (TSA) with the data’s hash. The TSA signs the hash along with the current timestamp and returns the signed message to the client. The message, with the TSA’s certificate and the data, allows everyone to verify that the data was timestamped at the given time.

For simple description, we present our protocol as compliant with TSP. However, with minor or no changes, our scheme can be combined with other services, like currently existing PKIs or secure time synchronization services (see subsection V-B).

Ii-C System Model

Our protocol introduces the two following parties:

  • Timestamping authority (TSA) runs a service that timestamps documents according to the TSP protocol presented in subsection II-B.

  • Verifier is an entity that wants to verify when a new (upcoming) blockchain’s block was mined. A verifier can interact with the Bitcoin network by reading blocks and sending transactions and can interact with a (chosen) trusted TSA.

We assume that the used cryptographic primitives are secure. We assume an adversary able to mine Bitcoin blocks, and her goal is to introduce a new block with an incorrect timestamp (i.e., deviating from the TSA’s time) undetected.

Ii-D Notation

Throughout the paper we use the following notation:

denotes the message signed by ,
is a cryptographic hash function,
is the string concatenation,
denotes that is an element randomly selected from the set ,
is a set of all -bit long strings,
denotes the th blockchain’s block,
denotes the th block header,
is a Unix timestamp expressed in seconds.

Iii Description of the Protocol

Iii-a High-Level Overview

The main idea behind our scheme is to combine an external TSA with the blockchain, such that a verifier can create a cryptographically-provable series of events that asserts when a given block was mined (i.e., when all transactions associated with the block were published). A simplified description of our protocol is presented in Figure 1.

Fig. 1: A high-level overview of the protocol.

The protocol starts, when a verifier sees a new block . The verifier extracts the block header and contacts a TSA to timestamp . Then, the TSA returns a timestamped and signed to the verifier. This message states that the block is older than the message itself (i.e., than its timestamp). Next, the verifier publishes the timestamped and signed message in the blockchain. The corresponding transaction is published in the subsequent block . As the transaction is included in the block, it implies that the block is newer than the transaction (i.e., the block is newer than the timestamp associated with the transaction). Finally, the verifier extracts the header of this block and timestamps it with the TSA. Now, the verifier has evidence that the block was created between the timestamped messages (i.e., between their timestamps).

Iii-B Details

As presented above the verifier interacts with the TSA and the Bitcoin network. Everyone can act as a verifier, and TSAs can be chosen arbitrarily by verifiers. The protocol is initiated independently by a verifier by executing the following:

  1. On receiving the th block with the block header , the verifier:

    1. selects a random value ,

    2. prepares data to be timestamped.

  2. The verifier contacts a TSA to timestamp .

  3. The TSA returns a timestamped and signed message .

  4. On receiving this message the verifier:

    1. computes as a commitment,

    2. encodes within a Bitcoin transaction, and

    3. propagates the transaction across the network, such that it is included in the subsequent block .

  5. On receiving the th block , with the block header , the verifier:

    1. selects a random value ,

    2. prepares data to be timestamped,

    3. creates as a Merkle tree inclusion proof of the transaction containing .

  6. The verifier contacts the TSA to timestamp .

  7. The TSA returns a signed message .

  8. Now, the verifier has the following information


    which constitutes a proof that the block was mined between and .

  9. To verify whether the block has a correct timestamp, the verifier checks if the following is satisfied:

The verifier can terminate the protocol at the step 9. However, to verify the creation time of the subsequent block, he can compute a new commitment and conduct the protocol from the step 4b onwards.

For the sake of a simple presentation, we include and in the proof (see Equation 1), but they are redundant as can be computed from and , correspondingly. We also describe the protocol with a single TSA. However, it is easy to extend the scheme to multiple TSAs. In such a case, the verifier timestamps the and messages with multiple TSAs, and computes the commitment as a hash over the TSAs messages corresponding to .

Iv Analysis

First, we claim that the verifier executing the protocol obtains a provable series of events that given block was mined in a given time range. Hence, an adversary cannot introduce a block with an invalid timestamp undetected. (Although we present our protocol in the adversarial setting, invalid timestamps can be introduced by benign miners with desynchronized clocks.)


block is created

mining period

block is created

timestamp and publish

Fig. 2: Timeline of the events in the protocol.

The timeline of the protocol events is presented in Figure 2. When the verifier notices the block he creates by hashing a random value and the block’s header . is timestamped by the TSA, and the commitment is computed as a hash of this timestamped message. With the verifier can check that it was indeed created after the as the header of (i.e., ) was used to create it. Therefore, the block is older than the timestamp . Then, the commitment is propagated among the network and finally included in the newly created block . The verifier, with the header of the new block can prove that is part of this block (using the Merkle inclusion proof ), thus it has to be older than the block. Next, the verifier from a random value and the block’s header creates , which is timestamped by the TSA. The message from the TSA () states that was created before , and because is derived from , it implies that the block was created before . Finally, the verifier equipped with this information (see Equation 1) can check whether the block’s timestamp is correct (i.e., ).

Our protocol provides much better freshness properties than the Bitcoin protocol alone. As depicted in Figure 2, if the verifier creates and publishes immediately after the block is observed and timestamps after the block is observed, then the accuracy of timestamping is approximately equal the block creation time (currently, estimated as 10 minutes). The verifier can increase the accuracy by creating and publishing multiple commitments in a sequence, such that the difference between timestamped and decreases.

The protocol is described in the scenario where the commitment appears in transactions corresponding to the block . Although the propagation in the Bitcoin network is fast when compared to the average block creation time [6], it may happen that is included in a later block. In such a case, our protocol still provides guarantees about the blocks in between. For example, if the commitment appears not in but in the block , then the proof states that blocks and were mined between and .

The verifier generates a random value that together with is timestamped by the TSA as , which in turn is hashed into the commitment . The commitment is published in the blockchain, however, is not revealed. This construction protects the protocol from censorship by an adversary that wishes to manipulate the timestamp. Without this random value, the adversary could just keep timestamping hash of every second, learn all possible commitments for the block header, and censor the verifier’s transaction. With a large random value (e.g., chosen from ), generating all possible commitments is infeasible, hence the adversary cannot distinguish between a regular transaction and the verifier’s transaction.

Although we do not consider malicious TSAs, the protocol provides means to keep them accountable. If the TSA returns the signed messages such that , then the verifier has an evidence that the TSA misbehaved. More specifically, the verifier can show that is older than (by showing that was created using , which contains created from which was timestamped at ), which proves that the TSA contradicted itself. Moreover, the TSA does not know secret random values , , hence cannot learn what is being timestamped. (However, colluding TSA and adversary could censor commitments.)

V Practical Considerations

V-a Commitments Encoding

In our protocol, a verifier publishes commitments in the blockchain (see the step 4c of the protocol). This message is computed as a hash thus is short and can be encoded on the blockchain in many ways. One way is to publish a transaction with the commitment encoded within the 20-byte long receiver of transaction (pay-to-pubkey-hash) field. An alternative could be to encode messages into other fields or to use the OP_RETURN instruction [19].

Storing non-transaction data in the Bitcoin blockchain is regarded by many members of the Bitcoin community as a spam or even a vandalism. We agree that using the Bitcoin blockchain as a highly distributed database negatively influences its performance. However, we believe that our protocol will be seen as a positive contribution to the ecosystem, as firstly, it aims to improve the security of the protocol, and secondly, the overhead introduced is marginal. Moreover, this overhead can be minimized by publishing commitments through a system like OpenTimestamp, which aggregates and publishes data in the blockchain efficiently.

V-B Timestamping Service

We describe our protocol to be compliant with the timestamping service as defined in the RFC 3161 [2] (see subsection II-B). There are many providers of this service, both commercial and free. However, our protocol, with minimal or no changes, can be combined with other currently existing infrastructures.

Surprisingly, today’s SSL/TLS servers can act in our protocol as TSAs. The SSL/TLS protocol supports Diffie-Hellman (DH) as a key-exchange algorithm. In such a case, a server sends to a client the ServerKeyExchange message, that among other parameters, signs the DH parameters, and client’s and server’s random values. These random values start with a timestamp field, hence it is possible to timestamp a document by the server’s key by setting the client’s random value to a document’s hash [8]. As, SSL/TLS is becoming ubiquitous and the DH exchange is widely supported [3, 21], web servers of reputable organizations (e.g., or high-profile websites (like or can be used as TSAs.

Another infrastructure that with minimal changes can implement the TSA functionality is secure time synchronization infrastructure. For instance, Roughtime [12], a recent proposal by Google, provides signed timestamps. To prevent replay attacks, a client inputs its nonce which together with a timestamp is signed by the server. To implement the TSA functionality, a client just inputs as a nonce, like in the protocol. One small change is caused by the design of Roughtime where, for efficiency reasons, servers sign responses in batches. Hence, values returned by servers are encoded differently, however still are verifiable and can be used analogically as the TSA’s output from the protocol (see the steps 3 and 7).

Vi Conclusions

In this paper, we presented a method of strengthening the reliability of Bitcoin timestamps. Our protocol is efficient, backward compatible, and can provide much stronger freshness guarantees than the Bitcoin protocol alone. Our method can be combined with currently existing and widespread security infrastructures like the SSL/TLS PKI. Although we presented our scheme in the Bitcoin context, it is also applicable to other blockchain-based platforms.

The protocol can be deployed in many applications. Verifiers can run the protocol to detect misbehaving nodes. The protocol can be part of a detection system against time-related attacks or can be combined with a system like OpenTimestamps to enhance it. Proofs can be also publicly published, so nodes that in the future download and validate the entire blockchain will have much better assurance about the event timeline.


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