As ZK Tech Booms in Crypto, Developers Must Consider User Safety

Zero Knowledge proofs offer robust security and scaling for the latest crypto products. OpenZeppelin’s Stephen Webber writes about how developers could build more secure ZK proofs.

AccessTimeIconMar 20, 2023 at 9:46 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 20, 2023 at 9:59 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 20, 2023 at 9:46 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 20, 2023 at 9:59 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 20, 2023 at 9:46 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 20, 2023 at 9:59 p.m. UTC

An issue inherent with blockchain systems is their inability to expand without sacrificing security or decentralization – a concept coined by Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin as the “blockchain trilemma.”

However, the emergence of zero knowledge (ZK) cryptography promises to transform the way blockchains process, encrypt and share data, offering powerful solutions that address the most formidable scaling challenges.

Stephen Webber works in product marketing at OpenZeppelin, a crypto cybersecurity technology and services company.

ZK technology, such as zk-proofs (ZKP), verifies data without revealing any information beyond that necessary to prove the veracity of the data. This makes them an ideal component in privacy protocols and digital IDs where data privacy is critical.

In the context of blockchain scaling, however, ZKPs can be used in conjunction with rollups to process transaction data off-chain and generate a compact proof to confirm validity – greatly enhancing data efficiency and bringing a potential end to the blockchain trilemma.

Thanks to its unbounded potential across a myriad of services, In recent months, ZK tech has gone from a relative niche to a cornerstone of Web3 infrastructure. From tackling the scaling crisis to bolstering privacy, and even securing one of Web3’s most exploited attack vectors via trustless cross-chain bridges, ZK technology offers far more than many appreciate at this juncture.

But while it lays the technical foundations for the future web, there’s one caveat: These systems need to be well-built and maintained or else risk a security threat of cataclysmic proportions.

Keys to security: airtight code, constant monitoring

Ensuring that ZK-powered projects work as intended requires more than just a basic understanding of the technology. Care should be taken to fully account for any low-level discrepancies with respect to EVM [Ethereum Virtual Machine] compatibility and any other details regarding the function of relevant system components

A key aspect of building robust ZK-powered applications involves leveraging well-vetted code from verified smart contract libraries.

By using code from trusted sources, developers can create a solid foundation for their projects without having to reinvent the wheel. These libraries have already been field tested and community approved, reducing the likelihood of errors and vulnerabilities in the final product.

The next major line of defense is proper code auditing. This can’t merely be internal auditing done by the developers themselves. Instead, third-party services need to be employed that publish complete and transparent reports on any and all issues found within the code. These audits also need to be performed regularly, especially when changes are made to the codebase, to ensure updates don't inadvertently introduce errors. Having this level of comprehensive review and transparency is the foundation of keeping all users safe.

Going further, there is a need for systems to perform real-time monitoring of all network activity. Even with the best of auditing, problems can occur that only become apparent after code is deployed and users begin interacting with it (and related protocols) over time.

Often, one of the first signs of an attack happening is unusual on-chain activity. By combining constant monitoring with procedures for developers to take immediate action, the response to such an event could happen in minutes, instead of hours or even days.

The use of advanced tooling can also automate security incident response in several key scenarios (e.g., by enabling the circuit breaker-like functionality of smart contract pausing), removing the need for human intervention and avoiding these associated delays.

As more and more financial and data-driven services turn to zero-knowledge technology, ensuring the trustworthiness of these systems becomes increasingly crucial. Those services that prioritize user safety and take a comprehensive approach to security will lead the industry and win the trust of the growing percentage of users who seek greater agency and control over their funds and their personal data.

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Stephen Webber

Stephen Lloyd Webber works in product marketing at OpenZeppelin, a crypto cybersecurity tech company.