Such was the feeling at EthCC, an ethereum developer conference in Paris, Thursday, where a dedicated privacy track struck a somber note compared to years past.
Indeed, despite a software upgrade in October that saw improvements built to pave the way for confidentiality, such methods have been shown to exceed ethereum’s processing capacity, with the computationally intense cryptography all but bringing the blockchain to its limits.
So, while developers like Andrew Miller had predicted a rise in privacy-centric ethereum applications just months ago, the conference showcased how an almost eerie silence has followed as scaling and security obstacles have proven more difficult to solve than foreseen.
As evidence, ZoKrates, a programming language aimed to equip average developers with the ability to code private contracts, has struggled to find its way out of the setup phase.
Speaking in a presentation today, the code’s creator, Jacob Eberhardt, said that ethereum will need to add more cryptographic variables in a system-wide software upgrade for the concept to work. Still, Eberhardt also bemoaned that, given the controversy that can follow such a suggestion, it’s perhaps not one that will be adopted quite so easily.
“We don’t want to keep adding new crypto,” Eberhardt said.
Matthew Di Ferrante, developer at the Ethereum Foundation and founder of smart contract company ZK Labs, echoed this cautionary tone. In a discussion on the relationship and trade-offs between privacy and scalability on ethereum, Di Ferrante went so far as to warn the audience.
“If you think ethereum isn’t scalable now, or that blockchains aren’t scalable now, the further you get the more alarming it is. Everyone likes to talk about the magic, but not many people can write the code,” he said.
The statement is notable considering the urgency of the ideas at stake.
In particular, zero-knowledge proofs, due to their ability to compress information in a concise format, could eventually work to reduce information on the ethereum blockchain, thus enabling better scaling.
According to Di Ferrante, such achievements are still possible, they’re just a little further down the line.
He told the audience:
“Progress is slow but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”
Waiting for privacy
As an example, Di Ferrante pointed to blockchain voting to illustrate the problems faced today.
“A vote of a thousand people would require a thousand signatures each a thousand bytes each. You would never be able to check a single signature due to the block gas limit,” Di Ferrante said.
Such a use case is the core emphasis of Di Ferrante’s research, which seeks to anonymize proofs through the use of ring signatures – a way of obscuring information in a retrievable way that works by aggregating the data within a group.
Di Ferrante has found that by using bi-linear pairings, a form of elliptic curve that is active within the ethereum virtual machine, various shortcuts in the complex cryptography can be made to minimize the scalability trade-off…