The first thing to catch my eye was the dedication to the late, great Dan Kaminsky, a fellow attendee of the Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop and someone I admired.
It is an engrossing read. The action moves swiftly, the plot requires little suspension of disbelief and has plenty of twists to keep you thinking. The interesting parts are the details about how people and their money can be tracked, and how people with a lot can prevent it being tracked. Doctorow gets to cover many of his favorite themes in a fast-moving story about a character approaching retirement. I'm well past that stage, but I understand some of those issues.
The story ends happily because all the bodies that pile up are bad guys. This is necessary since this is apparently the first in a series. I'll definitely read the next one.
You don't need to understand blockchains and cryptocurrencies to enjoy the story, but I do so, below the fold, I can't resist picking some nits with the technical details.
David Gerard explains the technology:
Trustlesscoin, a cryptocurrency blockchain that solves the Sybil problem with secure enclaves. (See Mobilecoin for one real-world example.)There are two reasons why something like Trustlesscoin is a bad idea:
- The one that Doctorow uses as the MacGuffin for this story, which is that the keys can leak. (See Western Digital for an up-to-date example). Leaking of the keys would lead to a catastrophic failure of the system, in Doctorow's telling to a $1.2B loss, and much other damage.
- The one that Doctorow doesn't discuss, because it would spoil the story, is that "secure enclaves" are just software running inside a hardware "moat". As with all software, the software inside can have vulnerabilities, which can also lead to a catastrophic failure of the system. See Intel's SGX for an example.
In Doctorow's story the initial need for the keys was not theft, but the ability to rewrite the blockchain in the case of a bug. In the cryptosphere this is normally managed without rewriting by a "hard fork", as Molly White discusses in Blockchain-based systems are not what they say they are:
the case of The Dao, a project that is often described as the first ever DAO. In June 2016, attackers exploited a vulnerability to steal 3.6 million ETH (then about $50 million) of the project’s 11.5 million ETH (about $160 million). And so the Ethereum blockchain was simply “hard forked”, resetting the funds into a recovery address where they could be returned to the community. This was not a one-off mulligan in the early, Wild West days of blockchains and DAOs: Polygon hard forked after the discovery of a huge vulnerability just this December.But surreptitious blockchain rewriting isn't unknown. Two excellent summaries of investigations by @cryptohippo65 and DataFinnovation, Dirty Bubble Media's The Binance Scam Chain and Patrick Tan's Binance Built a Blockchain, Except it Didn’t, reveal that Binance routinely rewrites the Binance Chain.
And now for a couple of really minor nits that are clearly allowed by the artistic license:
- A Walmart parking lot in Menlo Park? The nearest one is in Mountain View.
- A laptop with a hard drive? How long is it since laptops you could buy at Fry's had SSDs instead of hard drives?