Ethereum Users Are Losing Money and Devs Don't Quite Know What to Do

Ethereum's developers are once again grappling with the issue of how to solve major fund losses on the world's second-largest blockchain.

AccessTimeIconFeb 7, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:32 a.m. UTC

Ethereum is once again at a familiar crossroads.

As the price of its cryptocurrency ether has soared (and then corrected) in 2018, one thing has remained constant – users continue to lose money due to hacks, faulty code and human error. It's an issue that in the past has split the platform into rivaling forces and left lingering debates – and, as recent activity on GitHub shows, tensions are escalating again.

Pumping new life into the debate is the resurgence of a chat channel formed in the wake of the loss of 513,000 ether by startup Parity last year. In particular, the forum has reignited with the release of a sketch for how fund recovery proposals could be standardized to make them easier to implement.

It's the second major action the team has taken, after first helping arrive at possible methods to return the lost Parity funds, a proposal that was hotly rejected.

Led by developer Dan Phifer from Musiconomi (an ICO issuer that saw 16,475 ether lost in the Parity freeze) and two developers from a startup called Tap Trust, the document offers a way to make it easier for ethereum clients to implement so-called state changes, or system-wide upgrades that would require all users to upgrade their software to versions reflecting redistributed fund balances.

Yet, some vehemently disagree that such a mechanism is needed, going so far as to suggest the idea is out of line with the guiding ethos of the world's second-largest blockchain protocol.

Already, it has been rejected by ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin, prominent developer Yoichi Hirai and communications manager Hudson Jameson – three of the six that manage the ethereum repository and thereby have the power of green-lighting changes to the platform.

Hirai, for instance, argued the proposal is "at odds with the ethereum philosophy," stating in a blog post that he is "not going to move a finger" for such changes.

Likewise, Alex Van de Sande, the founder of ethereum's Mist browser, wrote on Github that the changes required to return lost funds should be "rare and increasingly exceptional."

However, such sentiments are in marked contrast to developers recommending the standard, such as Parity's Afri Schoedon, who told CoinDesk:

"State changes are not a bad precedent. It shows we are a working platform that is able to heal wounds."

Revealing old scars

All of this controversy harks back to the 2016 DAO hack that saw 3.6 million ether – worth $2.6 billion at today's prices – taken from users' wallets by a person exploiting a loophole in the code.

In response, developers implemented an update that reversed the DAO theft, even though a significant group of community members were against the idea. Because of the heated debate around the philosophy, a group of enthusiasts even hard forked off ethereum to create a competing cryptocurrency, ethereum classic, now valued at $1.7 billion.

That event "left many scars, a split community and talking points that ethereum detractors seem to want to point to forever," Van de Sande told CoinDesk.

When the Parity exploit happened, tensions surrounding the issue re-emerged.

While Parity was quick to offer a solution, it was one which would require all users to upgrade software again, and many people criticized that move. Joining the discussion was a shower of voices that felt "no fork" should occur, with the fervor echoing the DAO infighting the previous year.

However, while the DAO fork pushed many ethereum developers to err on the side of caution, others maintain a more liberal approach.

As Schoedon told CoinDesk:

"I think a lot of people are scared about the repercussions after the DAO hard fork. It caused a lot of bad press. But honestly, it was a great move, it showed the ethereum community is not stubborn about 'code is law,' but rather able to act quickly."

Simply, not so simple

Still, some think there's merit to considering all options, and the new proposal does promise fund returns could be achieved in a simpler manner, one that would involve both affected organizations and known and trusted influencers.

The later comments, however, have proved a lightning rod, as they are perceived as encouraging a centralized method of management.

In response to the statement, Hirai wrote on Github:

"The authors are still looking for a certain class of people who can make judgments. They are looking for authorities … single points of failure and the need of trust [is] what ethereum tries to avoid."

Hirai continued in a blog post, saying that it's his personal belief the "each user of ethereum is responsible for their use of ethereum."

And as such, funds lost on the platform should be made up for by donations, rather than changes to the ethereum software itself, he continued.

Discussion on the Github thread mirrors Hirai's conservatism, warning that while the standard for fund recovery is meant in good faith, it could be liable to corruption, bribery, and "a system that can be terribly abused later," Van de Sande told CoinDesk.

Livelihoods on the line

Yet, in the same vein, questions have emerged as to whether the developers who have spoken out against the proposal have the authority to actually block the change before it would be put to users.

Schoedon contends that Hirai's refusal to allow users to consider the code is a "conflict of interest," shedding light on how prominent figures already heavily influence development decisions.

Ethereum developer Nick Johnson, who is also listed as an ethereum repository editor, has taken a similar position, writing on a thread:

"The role of editors here is not to determine what requests should be included on the chain, but merely which requests pass the minimum bar of being factually accurate."

Elsewhere, a leading voice behind the proposed shift, Musiconomi's Phifer, urged the community to accept the risk of recovery when there is "no perceivable downside" and the loss impacts users "businesses and livelihoods." He continued, saying that the problem with lost funds will likely only worsen as adoption continues to grow, putting a strain on the nascent network.

Phifer is not alone in his perspective there.

While the DAO hack and Parity freeze comprise some of the more high-profile incidents, cases of lost funds among users are said to be relatively common.

A typo in a wallet address could permanently delete funds, and attacks on insecure smart contracts are fairly frequent (litecoin creator Charlie Lee went so far as to call ethereum a "hackers' paradise" in a conversation to CoinDesk last year).

Addressing the necessity to refresh code in response to errors, Schoedon said:

"Ethereum is not static construct. Ethereum is what we want it to be. It's always a process, a transition. And that includes discussions, and yes, this includes resolving conflicts. And in the end there will be always consensus."

Shredded money image via Shutterstock


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