MAD-HTLC: Because HTLC is Crazy-Cheap to Attack

Duke Privacy and Security Seminar
Speaker Name
Itay Tsabary
Date and Time
The talk will be virtual on Zoom.
The Zoom link will be emailed to CS faculty/grad students, or contact Jennifer Schmidt (jschmidt at to request it.

Smart Contracts and transactions allow users to implement elaborate constructions on cryptocurrency blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Many of these constructions, including operational payment channels and atomic swaps, use a building block called Hashed Time-Locked Contract (HTLC).

In this work, we distill from HTLC a specification (HTLC-Spec), and present an implementation called Mutual-Assured-Destruction Hashed Time-Locked Contract (MAD-HTLC). MAD-HTLC employs a novel approach of utilizing the existing blockchain operators, called miners, as part of the design. If a user misbehaves, MAD-HTLC incentivizes the miners to confiscate all her funds. We prove MAD-HTLC's security using the UC framework and game-theoretic analysis. We demonstrate MAD-HTLC's efficacy and analyze its overhead by instantiating it on Bitcoin's and Ethereum's operational blockchains.

Notably, current miner software makes only little effort to optimize revenue, since the advantage is relatively small. However, as the demand grows and other revenue components shrink, miners are more motivated to fully optimize their fund intake. By patching the standard Bitcoin client, we demonstrate such optimization is easy to implement, making the miners natural enforcers of MAD-HTLC.

Finally, we extend previous results regarding HTLC vulnerability to bribery attacks. An attacker can incentivize miners to prefer her transactions by offering high transaction fees. We demonstrate this attack can be easily implemented by patching the Bitcoin client, and use game-theoretic tools to qualitatively tighten the known cost bound of such bribery attacks in presence of rational miners. We identify bribe opportunities occurring on the Bitcoin and Ethereum main networks where a few dollars bribe could yield tens of thousands of dollars in reward (e.g., $2 for over $25K).

Short Biography

Itay is a Ph.D. candidate at the Technion, Israel. His research focuses on blockchain and cryptocurrency security.

Johes Bater