[Bitcoin-development] 32 vs 64-bit timestamp fields

Peter Todd pete at petertodd.org
Thu May 9 01:57:31 UTC 2013

On Thu, May 09, 2013 at 01:27:33AM +0000, John Dillon wrote:
> > There's also no need: 32 bits is plenty of precision. Hell, even 16 bits would
> > do (assuming there's never more than a 65535s (about 18 hours) gap between two
> > blocks). Just assume the "full" 64-bit time is the smallest one that makes
> > sense, given its lower 32 bits.
> I feel somewhat uncomfortable about the "after-the-fact" auditing possible in
> this scenario. Besides the timestamping provided by the block headers appears
> to be useful in some payment protocols, not to mention in general.

Remember that interpreting the timestamp on a block for the purposes of
timestamping is a lot more subtle than it appears at first.

Any node will accept a block with a timestamp no more than two hours
ahead of what it thinks the current time is. That time is adjusted by
the median of the timestamps reported by your peers. For instance the
RPC call getinfo returns, among other things:

    "timeoffset" : -1,

That is saying my node's wall clock time is 1 second behind the median
reported by it's peers - pretty good!

Naively you might think this means block timestamps are accurate to
within 2 hours right? Well, it's not so simple. Nodes will accept any
block with any timestamp *after* the median of the last 11 blocks. From

    // Check timestamp against prev
    if (GetBlockTime() <= pindexPrev->GetMedianTimePast())
        return state.Invalid(error("AcceptBlock() : block's timestamp is too early"));

So in theory a miner could prevent that block from moving forward,
although if they do they drive up the difficulty, so all miners have an
incentive to set the timestamp accurately.

There are two types of timestamps possible: proofs that data existed
before a time, and proofs that data existed after. With the former type
the *later* the proof says the data existed, the more conservative the
assumptions behind the proof. So simply adding two hours to the block's
timestamp is relatively reasonable. (this assumes the attack managed to
mine a single block, and all nodes have accurate clocks)

The latter type, where you prove data existed after a given time, is a
much more tricky thing to apply. The genesis block is a great example
with that famous newspaper headline:

    The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for

As I mentioned in my other (private) email to you a few minutes ago, the
sig of my emails has the latest block hash in each one. The basic idea
is called a random beacon; NIST has a good description and a project to
create one:


Now technically speaking a random beacon is actually a more
sophisticated concept than just timestamping, the random beacon's value
is public and distributed widely, but for timestamping the idea is
basically to have an unpredictable number known to have been produced at
a certain time.

So you know this email was written after block #235235, timestamp
2013-05-09 01:21:52 right? Not so fast. All you actually know is the PGP
*signature* was created after that time, because the actual text of the
email is independent of the beacon nonce. (dunno if I have the correct
terminology here FWIW)

For a blockchain it's easy enough, the blocks naturally depend on a
genesis block, but applying the concept more generally is tricky and
application dependent; consider for example proving you created a
keypair after some data, which might be a useful thing to prove if the
secret key was created in some tamperproof hardware that you know has
left the factory and is in your possesion. It's easy to see how to do
this with ECC: just use the same techniques as in HD wallets to derive

To use the blockchain as a secure random beacon you need to make two
assumptions, 50% of the hashing power is controlled by honest miners,
and those honest miners have accurate clocks. With those assumptions you
can work out what is the minimum possible time the block could have been
accepted by the GetMedianTimePast() function and you are good to go.

What do people do in practice? Well look at
http://vog.github.io/bitcoinproof/, they just give the timestamp and
nothing else. Same for OpenTimestamps. (although I'm adding this email
to my notes, half the reason it's so detailed...)

Back to the block header time... Frankly, the easiest thing to do is
just have a flag day where blocks after a certain height are considered
to have a different epoch from the standard 1970 one when computing
their time. Boring, but it works fine and only needs to be updated every
few decades.

You're midstate idea is very clever though and could come in handy in
the future for different purposes. Eventually we should discuss this
with the ASIC manufacturers - if it can be implemented as a firmware or
FPGA upgrade in the field all the better.

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