[Lightning-dev] New form of 51% attack via lightning's revocation system possible?

René Pickhardt r.pickhardt at googlemail.com
Tue Mar 13 13:30:21 UTC 2018

Hey everyone,

disclaimer: as mentioned in my other mail (
) I am currently studying the revocation system of duplex micropayment
channels in detail but I am also pretty new to the topic. So I hope the
attack I am about to describe is not possible and it is just me overseeing
some detail or rather my lack of understanding.
That being said even after waiting one week upon discovery and double
checking the assumptions I made I am still positive that the revocation
system in its current form allows for a new form of a 51% attack. This
attack seems to be way more harmful than a successful 51% attack on the
bitcoin network. Afaik within the bitcoin network I could 'only double
spend' my own funds with a successful 51% attack. In the lightning case it
seems that an attacker could steal an arbitrary amount of funds as long as
the attacker has enough payment channels with enough balance open.

The attack itself follows exactly the philosophy of lightning: "If a tree
falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it. Does it make a sound?"
In the context of the attack this would translate to: "If a 51% attacker
secretly mines enough blocks after fraudulently spending old commitment
transactions and no one sees it during the the *to_self_delay*  period,
have the commitment transactions been spent? (How) Can they be revoked?"

As for the technical details I quote from the spec of BOLT 3:
"*To allow an opportunity for penalty transactions, in case of a revoked
commitment transaction, all outputs that return funds to the owner of the
commitment transaction (a.k.a. the "local node") must be delayed for *
*to_self_delay** blocks. This delay is done in a second-stage HTLC
transaction (HTLC-success for HTLCs accepted by the local node,
HTLC-timeout for HTLCs offered by the local node)*"

Assume an attacker has 51% of the hash power she could open several
lightning channels and in particular accept any incoming payment channel
(the more balance is in her channels the more lucrative the 51% attack).
Since the attacker already has a lot of hash power it is reasonable (but
not necessary) to assume that the attacker already has a lot of bitcoins
and is well known to honest nodes in the network which makes it even more
likely to have many open channels.

The attacker keeps track of her (revocable) commitment transactions in
which the balance is mostly on the attackers side. Once the attacker knows
enough of these (old) commitment transactions the attack is being executed
in the following way:
0.) The max value of to_self_delay is evaluated. Let us assume it is 72
blocks (or half a day).
1.) The attacker secretly starts mining on her own but does not broadcasts
any successfully mined block. Since the attacker has 51% of the hash power
she will most likely be faster than the network to mine the 72 blocks of
the safety period in which fraudulent commitment transactions could be
2.) The attacker spends all the fraudulent (old) commitment transactions in
the first block of her secrete mining endeavor.
3.) Meanwhile the attacker starts spending her own funds of her payment
channels e.g on decentralized exchanges for any other (crypto)currency.
4.) As soon as the attacker has mined enough blocks that the commitment
transactions cannot be revoked she broadcasts her secretly minded
blockchain which will be accepted by the network as it is the longest
chain. (In Particular she includes all the other bitcoin transactions that
are also in the original public blockchain so that other people don't even
realize something suspicious has happened.)

Since according to the spec channels should never be balanced worse than
99% to 1% the attacker could steal up to 99% of all the bitcoins allocated
in the sum of all payment channels the attacker was connected to. This
amount could obviously be way higher than just double spending her own
funds. This attack would be interesting in particular for the power nodes
created by the Barabasi-Albert model of lnd's autopilot (c.f.:
https://github.com/lightningnetwork/lnd/issues/677 ).

I understand that with the growth of the bitcoin (mining) network a 51%
attack becomes less and less likely. Also I am very happy to be proven
false about the attack that I am describing.

Another sad thing about this attack is that I currently do not see any
(reasonable) way of preventing this form of a 51% attack (other than
creating payment channels that don't offer the possibility of revocation)
as it is abusing exactly the core idea of lightning to do something in
secret without broadcasting it.

Best regards Rene


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