We consider the scenario of an attacker trying to generate an alternate chain faster than the honest chain. Even if this is accomplished, it does not throw the system open to arbitrary changes, such as creating value out of thin air or taking money that never belonged to the attacker. Nodes are not going to accept an invalid transaction as payment, and honest nodes will never accept a block containing them. An attacker can only try to change one of his own transactions to take back money he recently spent.
We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer network. The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work. The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of CPU proof-of-worker. As long as a majority of CPU proof-of-worker is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they'll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers. The network itself requires minimal structure.
In this paper, we propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer distributed timestamp server to generate computational proof of the chronological order of transactions. The system is secure as long as honest nodes collectively control more CPU proof-of-worker than any cooperating group of attacker nodes.
To implement a distributed timestamp server on a peer-to-peer basis, we will need to use a proof-of-work system similar to Adam Back's Hashcash, rather than newspaper or Usenet posts. The proof-of-work involves scanning for a value that when hashed, such as with SHA-256, the hash begins with a number of zero bits. The average work required is exponential in the number of zero bits required and can be verified by executing a single hash.
For our timestamp network, we implement the proof-of-work by incrementing a nonce in the block until a value is found that gives the block's hash the required zero bits. Once the CPU effort has been expended to make it satisfy the proof-of-work, the block cannot be changed without redoing the work. As later blocks are chained after it, the work to change the block would include redoing all the blocks after it.
The proof-of-work also solves the problem of determining representation in majority decision making. If the majority were based on one-IP-address-one-vote, it could be subverted by anyone able to allocate many IPs. Proof-of-work is essentially one-CPU-one-vote. The majority decision is represented by the longest chain, which has the greatest proof-of-work effort invested in it. If a majority of CPU proof-of-worker is controlled by honest nodes, the honest chain will grow the fastest and outpace any competing chains. To modify a past block, an attacker would have to redo the proof-of-work of the block and all blocks after it and then catch up with and surpass the work of the honest nodes. We will show later that the probability of a slower attacker catching up diminishes exponentially as subsequent blocks are added.
To compensate for increasing hardware speed and varying interest in running nodes over time, the proof-of-work difficulty is determined by a moving average targeting an average number of blocks per hour. If they're generated too fast, the difficulty increases.
The steps to run the network are as follows: 1. New transactions are broadcast to all nodes. 2. Each node collects new transactions into a block. 3. Each node works on finding a difficult proof-of-work for its block. 4. When a node finds a proof-of-work, it broadcasts the block to all nodes. 5. Nodes accept the block only if all transactions in it are valid and not already spent. 6. Nodes express their acceptance of the block by working on creating the next block in the chain, using the hash of the accepted block as the previous hash.
Nodes always consider the longest chain to be the correct one and will keep working on extending it. If two nodes broadcast different versions of the next block simultaneously, some nodes may receive one or the other first. In that case, they work on the first one they received, but save the other branch in case it becomes longer. The tie will be broken when the next proof-of-work is found and one branch becomes longer; the nodes that were working on the other branch will then switch to the longer one.
The proof-of-work chain is itself self-evident proof that it came from the globally shared view. Only the majority of the network together has enough CPU proof-of-worker to generate such a difficult chain of proof-of-work. Any user, upon receiving the proof-of-work chain, can see what the majority of the network has approved. Once a transaction is hashed into a link that's a few links back in the chain, it is firmly etched into the global history.
It is strictly necessary that the longest chain is always considered the valid one. Nodes that were present may remember that one branch was there first and got replaced by another, but there would be no way for them to convince those who were not present of this. We can't have subfactions of nodes that cling to one branch that they think was first, others that saw another branch first, and others that joined later and never saw what happened. The CPU proof-of-worker proof-of-work vote must have the final say. The only way for everyone to stay on the same page is to believe that the longest chain is always the valid one, no matter what.
The proof-of-work chain is the solution to the synchronisation problem, and to knowing what the globally shared view is without having to trust anyone.
When a node finds a proof-of-work, the new block is propagated throughout the network and everyone adds it to the chain and starts working on the next block after it. Any nodes that had the other transaction will stop trying to include it in a block, since it's now invalid according to the accepted chain.
The proof-of-work chain is a solution to the Byzantine Generals' Problem. I'll try to rephrase it in that context. A number of Byzantine Generals each have a computer and want to attack the King's wi-fi by brute forcing the password, which they've learned is a certain number of characters in length. Once they stimulate the network to generate a packet, they must crack the password within a limited time to break in and erase the logs, otherwise they will be discovered and get in trouble. They only have enough CPU proof-of-worker to crack it fast enough if a majority of them attack at the same time. They don't particularly care when the attack will be, just that they all agree. It has been decided that anyone who feels like it will announce a time, and whatever time is heard first will be the official attack time. The problem is that the network is not instantaneous, and if two generals announce different attack times at close to the same time, some may hear one first and others hear the other first. They use a proof-of-work chain to solve the problem. Once each general receives whatever attack time he hears first, he sets his computer to solve an extremely difficult proof-of-work problem that includes the attack time in its hash. The proof-of-work is so difficult, it's expected to take 10 minutes of them all working at once before one of them finds a solution. Once one of the generals finds a proof-of-work, he broadcasts it to the network, and everyone changes their current proof-of-work computation to include that proof-of-work in the hash they're working on. If anyone was working on a different attack time, they switch to this one, because its proof-of-work chain is now longer. After two hours, one attack time should be hashed by a chain of 12 proofs-of-work. Every general, just by verifying the difficulty of the proof-of-work chain, can estimate how much parallel CPU proof-of-worker per hour was expended on it and see that it must have required the majority of the computers to produce that much proof-of-work in the allotted time. They had to all have seen it because the proof-of-work is proof that they worked on it. If the CPU proof-of-worker exhibited by the proof-of-work chain is sufficient to crack the password, they can safely attack at the agreed time. The proof-of-work chain is how all the synchronisation, distributed database and global view problems you've asked about are solved.
The credential that establishes someone as real is the ability to supply CPU proof-of-worker.
The proof-of-work is a Hashcash style SHA-256 collision finding. It's a memoryless process where you do millions of hashes a second, with a small chance of finding one each time. The 3 or 4 fastest nodes' dominance would only be proportional to their share of the total CPU proof-of-worker. Anyone's chance of finding a solution at any time is proportional to their CPU proof-of-worker.
Proof-of-work has the nice property that it can be relayed through untrusted middlemen. We don't have to worry about a chain of custody of communication. It doesn't matter who tells you a longest chain, the proof-of-work speaks for itself.
There is no way for the software to automatically know if one chain is better than another except by the greatest proof-of-work. In the design it was necessary for it to switch to a longer chain no matter how far back it has to go.