Fuzzing Bitcoin Consensus

TLDR I ran afl-fuzz against libbitcoinconsensus to discover interesting Bitcoin scripts and used them to search for Bitcoin reimplementations vulnerable to forking. This discovered two bugs in btcd by Conformal. See the bitcoinconsensus_testcases repository for the discovered Bitcoin scripts.


One of the things that must not happen during regular Bitcoin operation are forks. A fork occurs when there is a new block $B_{i+1}$ which is a valid successor to block $B_i$ for some set of Bitcoin nodes $N_v$ and invalid for the remaining nodes $N_{\neg v}$. Therefore, miners in $N_v$ will mine new blocks on top of $B_{i+1}$ and miners in $N_{\neg v}$ will still mine on $B_i$. As long as the majority of hashpower is in $N_{\neg v}$, the chain divergence will be resolved after some time, because $N_{\neg v}$’s chain will eventually get longer than $N_v$’s chain and then the nodes in $N_v$ will switch to $N_{\neg v}$’s chain. This is due to the nature of the blockchain: nodes always trust the longest valid chain (more exact: the chain with the most proof of work).

Consider for example the case of an update to the Bitcoin reference implementation that restricts valid signature encodings. $N_v$ are the nodes running the old Bitcoin version and $N_{\neg v}$ run the new version. As soon as the hash power of $N_{\neg v}$ exceeds some threshold the new consensus rule can be safely activated. In the context of Bitcoin updates this is called a softfork: a valid block becomes invalid in the new version. On the other hand, a hardfork occurs when an invalid block is valid in a new version, for example by raising the maximum block size limit. Then nodes that run the old version are represented by $N_{\neg v}$. Even if the majority of hashpower is in $N_v$, the nodes in $N_{\neg v}$ can never switch to $N_v$’s chain because some blocks are invalid for them. Therefore, in the case of a hardfork all nodes are required to update.


Forks in practice do not only happen deliberately because of updating mechanisms but can also be triggered by bugs. Bitcoin reimplementations such as libbitcoin, btcd, bitcore and toshi are particularly vulnerable to these bugs because they have to match exactly the behavior of the Bitcoin reference implementation. In order to abstract part of the consensus critical code and allow other projects to use it, Bitcoin Core developers created the bitcoinconsensus library. I am not aware of any reimplementation that already adopted libbitcoinconsensus. Right now, it only has a single function bitcoinconsensus_script_verify, which takes an output script and a transaction and returns if the transaction is allowed to spend the output.

Among other conditions, a transaction is valid if the top stack item is different from 0 after script execution. Bitcoin script is much more powerful than just verifying signatures and therefore I was curious to find interesting scripts, i.e. scripts that trigger unusual edge cases. I’ve recently heard about successes with afl-fuzz whose heuristic using code coverage seemed to be particularly well suited for the task. Also, it has the capability to minimize a set of inputs such that the code coverage stays the same. After fuzzing libbitcoinconsensus for two weeks I supplied the inputs to btcd’s txscript, a reimplementation in golang, and checked if the outputs differ.

Btcd bugs

The first bug I found was in btcd’s implementation of the OP_IFDUP opcode. This opcode pushes the top stack element on the stack if it differs from 0. Because of a type conversion in btcd, a stack element that exceeds 4 bytes would have never been copied, which differs from bitcoinconsensus’ implementation of the opcode. The second bug concerned the representation of the result of OP_EQUAL. This opcode compares the two top stack elements and pushes the result on the stack. In Bitcoin Core, if the comparison fails an empty byte array is pushed on the stack. Btcd however pushed a byte array containing 0. This means that the following script would be valid in bitcoinconsensus and invalid in btcd (Note that OP_0 pushes an empty byte array to the stack):


Both bugs would have triggered hardforks. An attacker could simply broadcast a transaction with the affected scripts and it would be mined subsequently. Btcd would have not been able to include the block into its chain and would become stuck on the last block. Therefore, an attacker could create a block on top of btcd’s chain paying a merchant running btcd without affecting his ‘real’ coins on the main chain. Note that the attacker would not race against the hashpower of Bitcoin miners.

Dave Collins from the btcd team fixed these issues very fast and additionally improved the test coverage in Bitcoin Core for the affected and more opcodes. Additionally, he was so kind to award me with 0.5 bitcoin for the find.


You can find the result of the fuzzing, the code to produce them and test reimplementation in the bitcoinconsensus_testcases repository. If you are interested you can start fuzzing yourself and submit a pull request with new scripts you found. Also, I’ve executed the testcases only with btcd and bitcore so far.