Category Archives: Research

Research-related information

A Tale of Shift Left, Shift Right, and MEV

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework’s five Functions are: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. Within this framework “shift left” means that we shift our focus towards Identify and Protect, i.e. towards fixing issues before our system is deployed into production. Say, if you have a bug in your Apple Store/Google Play app, you’d prefer fixing it before you deploy it to the internet, or, similarly you prefer fixing the bug in your cryptocurrency contract before you deploy it in the wild (i.e. “on the mainnet”). While shift left makes lots of sense (let’s prevent the issue in the first place!), in many cases, preventing all issues is likely impossible.

Shifting Left

Firstly, it is important to state that preventing all issues is often impossible because of what safety practitioners call the “blunt end”. When writing code, practitioners, i.e. developers, are at what safety literature would call the “sharp end”: they are like airplane pilots, directly at the control of their craft. While it’s easy to imagine that pilots are in “full control”, in reality, airplane pilots depend on and are affected by many things: accurate weather reports, quality and amount of training, certification bodies, proper aircraft maintenance, production pressure from corporate, etc. These are what safety literature calls the “blunt end” — things that contribute to both success and failure, but are not directly visible/obvious. When the 10th plane drops out of the sky this same year, and Boeing keeps blaming the (now dead) pilots, you know it’s the blunt end you ought to be looking at.

What this boils down to in terms of shift left is that while developers are in “full control”, in reality, there is a large blunt end that they have little to no control over, and which may set up the conditions such that failure is sometimes inevitable, even with the most careful of developers. An easy example of this is previously unknown vulnerability classes: for example unknown issues with CPU cache timing side-channels in classical IT security, or flash loan attacks for cryptocurrency contracts, which are a relatively new phenomenon, allowing anyone to instantly obtain a large capital for a fraction of time to break assumptions about a contract, which can help attackers. Another slightly less obvious example is production pressure, where competing entities are known to be working on the same idea/system and releasing first is critical for business success. It is one thing to “ask for time”, it’s another thing when you gotta release or it was all for nothing. While techniques like fuzzing, formal verification, coding best practices, etc. can help, they are neither bulletproof, nor are they reasonable to expect to be done fully for all contracts.

Notice that given the nature of cryptocurrencies where “code is the law”, it seems counter-intuitive to think that there are factors at play other than the code itself. On the surface, the rules of the game seem set and all mistakes seem to happen to/with code, hence the culprit is always clear. In other words, it seems as if there is no “blunt end”. However, as with all interesting endeavors, in my view, blunt ends are abound, even if they only manifest themselves in code in subtle ways. For example, before overflow protection was enabled by default on the most used Ethereum compiler, Solidity, overflow issues were possible (e.g. issues where 255+1=0, oops!), and could have lead to attacks. In other words, changing the compiler defaults can prevent a type of attack. Similarly, the SMT Checker, shipped as part of Solidity and Remix, can also warn developers of potential mistakes. These systems change the landscape, preventing the “sharp end”, i.e. developers, from making mistakes.

Shifting Right

The IT security sector has realized for some time now that spending all their effort on shift left, i.e. identifying issues and preventing them pre-deployment, is not adequate. With some effort, time, and money being spent on detection, adequate response, and recovery, i.e. post-deployment and hence on the “right” side, the impact of attacks or unforeseen events can be minimized. This is incredibly important, because as per above, it is often impossible to prevent all attacks. From phishing attacks, novel attack classes, persistent attackers, to production pressures, some attacks will go through, and be successful — at which point the only question is how successful will they be, i.e. will they reach all (or any) of their intended goals, or will they be stopped early, minimizing the damage caused.

There are some interesting properties of spending proper time dealing with post-production incidents. Firstly, it allows the system designers and developers to understand what attack patterns are typical against systems. In classical IT security, e.g. honeypots are often used to understand attacker behavior. These are (often under-protected) systems deployed either on the public internet, or more interestingly, on the intranet(s) of organizations, to see if (and how) attackers try to attack it. These systems can help spot (novel) attack patterns, and attackers in general. Other information-sharing systems are also in-place in the traditional IT security world: in Germany the BSI is responsible to warn large enterprises of (novel/successful) attack patterns in the wild. Within the space of cryptocurrencies, attacks tend to be on the public chain, and can be observed directly both as they happen (unless they are in a so-called private mempool, more on this later), and retrospectively, thanks to the public ledger. There is plenty to learn from how others succeed, or fail.

MEV, and On-Chain Security-as-a-Service

With all the above out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this article: how behavior patterns in the cryptocurrency world that are often cited as undesirable are actually doing a form of shift right. This inadvertent shift right is something I believe we could exploit to improve the safety of the chain overall.

Generalized frontrunning is a technique that consists of people listening to the set of sent, but unconfirmed transactions on the chain, and seeing if copying the same transaction themselves would make them money. They then submit the same transaction with a higher fee, giving more fee to the miners who confirm transactions. This leads to both transactions being executed, but theirs being executed first (and the 2nd likely failing), thereby giving them the money. Clearly, miners (who confirm transactions) could always do such frontrunning, and could do it much easier, since they decide who is going to be first, so they can make themselves first without paying a higher (or any) fee. Transaction frontrunning is slightly more complicated: it tries to both front- and back-run a transaction (also called sandwiching), manipulating the price before the transaction is executed (the “front” part) and then selling the excess (the “back” part). Generalized and transaction frontrunning attacks all fit under the umbrella of transaction reordering attacks and are also called Miner Extractable Value, or MEV for short. MEV is big business, with 8 million USD extracted in the past 30 days on the Ethereum chain, as of writing.

When you perform generalized frontrunning, you do two things: (1) you constantly check for potential value to be extracted, such an attack would do, and (2) you make sure your transaction runs first (hence the name “front-run”) that extracts the value to get the value for yourself. This clearly maps to the post-deployment part of the Cybersecurity Framework of NIST: detect & respond. In other words, it would actually make sense to constantly run a bot on-chain to detect and front run attacks against your own contracts. In a sense, the frontrunners are operating what in the traditional IT security world would be called a SOC — a Security Operations Center that is constantly on the lookout for attacks.

In this sense, MEV is not undesired, but a price to pay to have a non-stop security system. Of course, it is not a given that MEV bot operators extracting MEV will give back your money for the attack they front-ran. However, I posit that it’s much more likely that you’ll get your money back from them than the attackers. For example, at the MEV day for Devconnect, there was a discussion I participated in where a large MEV bot operator mentioned that they were willing to give back the funds of attacks they front-ran for a 10% fee. I expect that large organizations will in the future run their own MEV bots, and medium-sized ones will either simply pay the fee (10% or whatever it will be) when an attack happens, or perhaps pay a monthly fee for the protection service provided.

(Footnote: there is not only bad MEV. For example, backrunning (i.e. running after) liquidation events are incentivized to happen, and are considered normal for the system to run as designed.)

Current Solutions to MEV, and their Impact

There are two obvious ways to deal with the MEV issue: creating economic incentives to reduce their impact, and hiding pending transactions. Let’s to to get into both.

One way to deal with MEV is by not making pending transaction visible. So-called private mempools are operated by some miners (i.e. confirmers of transactions) that don’t allow the public to see the not-yet confirmed transactions. This is advantageous because it means that attackers cannot run clients to frontrun/sandwich/etc. pending transactions sent to these private mempools. In a way, private mempools are kind of a trusted environment, where you can be safe from people trying to extract MEV. However, it also means that malicious behavior submitted to these private pools cannot be front-run. Since these private pools are trust-based, it would be possible to allow some trusted parties to observe these private pools and frontrun attacks. Rather than being purely trust-based, it is possible that some sort of incentives-based system could also be set up, which seems like an open question/potential for improvement. This would be similar to what Flashbots does. Flashbots tries to use economic incentives through an open marketplace to make MEV extraction less disruptive to the ecosystem (among other benefits). However, it does not work for private mempools, since, well, they are private, and Flashbots requires publicly visible unconfirmed transactions to be able to work, due to its open marketplace concept.

MEV is not only big business, it’s also wasteful: often, the original transaction will fail, but still execute, consuming computational resources and burning money. MEV systems trying to outbid one another for the prize are effectively participating in an all-pay auction, i.e. everyone pays for the good but only one gets it. Thankfully Flashbots solves this by running an off-chain auction that is not all-pay. However, once we move from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake (i.e. to ETH 2.0), the attack transaction can be directly proposed to the next validator, skipping the public pool entirely. Essentially, the attacker can choose be in the private mempool by default (with some caveats, see Proposer-Builder Separation, and MEV-Boost), rather than by exception.

Conclusions

While Miner Extractable Value (MEV) seems on the surface to be an undesirable side-effect of the combination of current cryptocurrency protocols and the public nature of digital ledgers, it can also be seen as a feature. This feature could allow one to perform detection & response to attacks, allowing legitimate entities to mitigate the impact of attacks on contracts post-deployment. There is some evidence that some people running MEV extraction bots are already effectively providing a form of post-deployment attack-mitigation-as-a-service for a fee. However, as usual, preventative measures are both more reliable and cheaper, and should be the focus of most efforts against attacks.

CMSGen, a Fast Uniform-Like Sampler

Uniform sampling is a problem where you are given a solution space and you have to present solutions uniformly, at random. In some cases, this is quite simple, say, for the lotto. Just pick 5 random numbers from a box and we are done! For the lotto the solution space is very easy to generate. However, when there are constraints on the solution space, it starts to get tricky.

Let’s say that I have a function I want to test, but the input to the function has some real-world constraints like e.g. the 1st parameter must be larger than the second, the 2nd parameter must be divisible by the 3rd etc. If I want to test that this function operates correctly, one way to do it is to generate 100 uniformly random inputs that don’t violate any of the constraints, run the function, and see if all is OK. For this, I need a fast way of generating uniform samples given the constraints on the solution space.

Sampler speed vs. accuracy

There have been many samplers proposed in the literature. I personally have worked on one called UniGen, a guaranteed approximate probabilistic sampler, meaning that it’ll give approximately uniform samples most of the time, and we have a proof to back this up. It’s a great sampler and will work very fast on many instances. However, for really complex solution spaces, it can have trouble. Say, you want to generate interesting test inputs for your deep learning algorithm. Deep neural networks tend to be extremely complex when translated to binary constraints, so UniGen will likely not be fast enough. It would give very good quality samples (i.e. properly uniform samples), but if it’s too slow, we may want to exchange quality of samples for speed of generation.

There are two well-known samplers that are supposed to generate uniform samples on complex solution spaces, QuickSampler (code), and STS (code), but give no guarantees, let’s call these “uniform-like” samplers. Unfortunately, the paper by Chakraborty et al and its resulting code Barbarik showed that these uniform-like samplers are highly non-uniform. Barbarik is a pretty neat idea that basically constructs solution spaces with known solution distributions and then asks the sampler to generate uniform samples. Knowing the solution space, Barbarik can then verify how non-uniform the sampler is. Imagine having a box with 1000 balls, half of them blue and the other half green. Now if I ask the sampler to give me 50 balls at random, and all of them are green, I’d be a bit surprised to say the least. It’d be like the 5-lottery having the same numbers 3 times in a row. Possible, but… not very likely. If I do this experiment 100 times, and I always get 50 green balls, it’s fair to conclude that the sampler is not uniform.

Our new uniform-like sampler, CMSGen

Given an effective tester, Barbarik, we (Priyanka Golia, Sourav Chakraborty, Kuldeep S. Meel, and myself) thought perhaps we can follow the nowadays very successful test-driven development (TDD) methodology. All we have to do is to make our sampler pass the test of Barbarik, while being at least as fast as STS/QuickSampler, and we’ll be good to go. In fact, given Barbarik, it only took about a week of playing around with CryptoMiniSat’s options to beat both STS and QuickSampler in both accuracy and speed. This speaks volumes to how important it is to have a robust, reliable, and fast testing framework that can give immediate feedback about the quality of samples generated.

Our new uniform-like sampler, based on CryptoMiniSat, is called CMSGen (research paper here), and effectively takes CyrptoMiniSat and applies the following set of changes, through pre-set command line options:

  • Pick polarities at random. Normally, SAT solvers use polarity caching scheme, but of course we want uniform samples over all the search space, so we need to pick polarities at random.
  • Branch on variables at random. Normally, SAT solver branch on variables that will most likely lead to a conflict to maximize search efficiency (the VSIDS heuristic). However, we want to explore the solution space as evenly as possible, and so we want to approach the solution space from as many angles as possible. If you think about the search space as an N-dimensional binary cube, then we are trying to approach this cube as any ways as possible.
  • Turn off all pre- and inprocessing. Pre and inprocessing in SAT solvers are used to minimize the instance, transforming it into something easier to solve, e.g. through Bounded Variable Elimination. We later reconstruct a viable solution based on the solution to the transformed instance. However, the transformed instance may (and often will!) have a very different solution space. We cannot have that, so we must turn this off. To be fair, some pre- and inprocessing could be left intact, e.g. subsumption and self-subsuming elimination, perhaps a future paper :)
  • Restart at static intervals. Restarts are nowadays often dynamic in modern SAT solvers, or even if not dynamic, then follow a non-regular pattern. However, that could disturb how we find solution. Imagine, let’s say that solutions with variable A set to TRUE are very easy to find, but solutions with FALSE are very hard to find. What will happen? Well, in restarts where A was randomly set to TRUE, we’ll always quickly find a solution and output it. But for restarts when A was randomly set to FALSE, the system would struggle to find a solution, and after some conflicts, it will simply restart into a status where hopefully A is set to TRUE, and it can find a solution again. It is quite clear to see that this will lead to serious issues with sampling quality. Hence, we set an adjustable but static restart interval of 100 conflicts, with higher values typically leading to more uniform samples.

Performance of CMSGen

Performance of the system is on the ridiculous scale in comparison with other samplers:

When it comes to 2-wise coverage, i.e. the quality of samples, the data speaks for itself (note, UniGen is missing here because it was too slow):

Note that between STS and QuickSampler, STS is both the more uniform sampler, but also the slower one. CMSGen overcomes this limitation: it’s both faster than QuickSampler, and more uniform than STS.

And of course, the Barbarik tester gives “Accept” on CMSGen much more often than on STS or QuickSampler:

Conclusion

If you need non-guaranteed uniform but fast sampling, I’d go and try out CMSGen. It’s really a completely different beast. It’s not a guaranteed uniform sampler, but it’s incredibly effective. In fact, it’s so effective and works so well, it took me a full year to figure out how best to generate problems for it where it wouldn’t be uniform. But that’s another paper, and another blog post! In the meantime, the sampler is here, go check it out!

CryptoMiniSat 5.8.0 Released

After many months of work, CryptoMiniSat 5.8.0 has been released. In this post I’ll go through the most important changes, and how they helped the solver to be faster and win a few awards, among them 1st place at the SAT incremental track, 3rd place SAT Main track, and 2nd&3d place in the SMT BitVector tracks together with the STP and MinkeyRink solvers.

Gauss-Jordan Elimination

First and foremost, Gauss-Jordan elimination at all levels of the search is now enabled by default. This is thanks to the work detailed in the CAV 2020 paper (video here). The gist of the paper is that we take advantage of the bit-packed matrix and some clever bit field filters to quickly check whether an XOR constraint is propagating, conflicting, or neither. This, and a variety of other improvements lead to about 3-10x speedup for the Gauss-Jordan elimination procedure.

With this speedup, the overhead is quite small, and we enable G-J elimination at all times now. However, there are still limits on the size of the matrix, the number of matrices, and we disable it if it doesn’t seem to improve performance.

As a bit of reflection: our original paper with Nohl and Castelluccia on CryptoMiniSat, featuring Gauss-Jordan elimination at all levels of the search tree was published at SAT 2009. It took about 11 years of work, and in particular the work of Han and Jiang to get to this point, but we finally arrived. The difference is day and night.

Target Phases

This one is really cool, and it’s in CaDiCaL (direct code link here) by Armin Biere, description here (on page 8). If you look at the SAT Race of 2019, you will see that CaDiCaL solved a lot more satisfiable problems than any other solver. If you dig deep enough, you’ll see it’s because of target phases.

Basically, target phases are a variation of phase saving, but instead of saving the phase all the time when backtracking, it only saves it when backtracking from a depth that’s longer than anything seen before. Furthermore, it is doing more than just this: sometimes, it picks only TRUE, and sometimes it picks only FALSE phase. To spice it up, you can keep “local deepest” and “global deepest” if you like, and even pick inverted phases.

It’s pretty self-explanatory if you read this code (basically, just switching between normal, target, inverted, fixed FALSE, fixed TRUE phases) and it helps tremendously. If you look at the graphs of the SAT 2020 competition results (side no. 19 here) you will see a bunch of solvers being way ahead of the competition. That’s target phases right there.

CCAnr Local Search Solver

CryptoMiniSat gained a new local search solver, CCAnr (paper here) and it’s now the default. This is a local search solver by Shaowei Cai who very kindly let me add his solver to CryptoMiniSat and allowed me to add him as an author to the version of CryptoMiniSat that participated in the SAT competition. It’s a local search solver, so it can only solve satisfiable instances, and does so by always working on a full solution candidate that it tries to “massage” into a full solution.

Within CryptoMiniSat, CCAnr takes the starting candidate solution from the phases inside the CDCL solver, and tries to extend it to fit all the clauses. If it finds a satisfying assignment, this is emitted as a result. If it doesn’t, the best candidate solution (the one that satisfies the most clauses) is saved into the CDCL phase and is later used in the CDCL solver. Furthermore, some statistics during the local search phase are saved and then injected into the variable branching heuristics of the CDCL solver, see code here.

Hybrid Variable Branching

Variable branching in CryptoMiniSat has always been a mix of VSIDS (Variable State Independent Decaying Sum, paper here) and Maple (multi-arm bandit based, paper here) heuristics. However, both Maple and VSIDS have a bunch of internal parameters that work best for one, or for another type of SAT problem.

To go around the issue of trying to find a single optimal value for all, CryptoMiniSat now uses a combination of different configurations that is parsed from the command line, such as: “maple1 + maple2 + vsids2 + maple1 + maple2 + vsids1” that allows different configurations for both Maple and VSIDS (v1 and v2 for both) to be configured and used, right from the command line. This configuration system allows for a wider variety of problems to be efficiently solved.

Final Remarks

CryptoMiniSat is now used in many systems. It is the default SAT solver in:

I think the above, especially given their track record of achieving high performance in their respective fields, show that CryptoMiniSat is indeed a well-performing and reliable workhorse. This is thanks to many people, including, but not limited to, Kuldeep Meel, Kian Ming A. Chai, Trevor Hansen, Arijit Shaw, Dan Liew, Andrew V. Jones, Daniel Fremont, Martin Hořeňovský, and others who have all contributed pull requests and valuable feedback. Thanks!

As always, let me know if you have any feedback regarding the solver. You can create a GitHub issue here, and pull request here. I am always interested in new use-cases and I am happy to help integrate it into new systems.

SAT Solvers as Smart Search Engines

Satisfiability problem solvers, or SAT solvers for short, try to find a solution to decidable, finite problems such as cryptography, planning, scheduling, and the like. They are very finely tuned engines that can be looked at in two main ways . One is to see them as proof generators, where the SAT solver is building a proof of unsatisfiability as it runs, i.e. it tries to prove that there is no solution to the problem. Another way is to see SAT solvers as smart search engines. In this blog post, I’ll take this latter view and try to explain why I think intermediary variables are important. So, for the sake of argument, let’s forget that SAT solvers sometimes restart the search (forgetting where they were before) and learn clauses (cutting down the search space and remembering where not go again). Let’s just pretend all they do is search.

Searching

The CryptoMiniSat SAT solver used to be able to generate graphs that show how a search through the search space went. Search spaces in these domains are exponential in size, say, 2^n in case there are n variables involved. I don’t have the search visualization code anymore but below is an example of such a search tree. The search starts at the very top not far from the middle, it descends towards the bottom left, then iteratively backtracks all the way to the top, and then descends towards the bottom right. Every pentagon at the bottom of a line is a place where the SAT solver backtracked. Observe that it never goes all the way back to the top — except once, when the top assignment needs to be flipped. Instead, it only goes back some way, partially unassigning variables. The bottom right corner is where the solution is found after many-many partial backtracks and associated partial unassignements:

What I want you to take away from this graph is the following: the solver iteratively tries to set a variable a value, calculates forward, and if it doesn’t work, it will partially backtrack, flip its value to its opposite, then descend again.

Brute force search vs. SAT solving

Trying one value and then trying the other sounds suspiciously like brute force search. Brute force search does exactly that, in a systematic and incredibly efficient way. We can build highly specialized executables and even hardware, to perform this task. If you look at e.g. Bitcoin mining, you will see a lot of specialized hardware, ASICs, doing brute-force search. And if you look at rainbow tables, you’ll see a lot of bit slicing.

So why waste our time doing all this fancy value propagation and backtracking when we could use a much more effective, systematic search system? The answer is, if you generated your problem description wrongly, then basically, for no good reason, and you are probably better off doing brute-force search. But if you did well, then a SAT solver can perform a significantly better search than brute-force. The trick lies in intermediary variables, and partial value assignments.

Partial value assignments

So let’s say that your brute force engine is about to check one input variable setting. It sets the input variables, runs the whole algorithm, and computes the output. The output is wrong though. Here is where things go weird. The brute force engine now completely erases its state, takes another input and runs the whole algorithm again. 

So, brute force does the whole calculation again, starting from a clean state, every time. What we have to recognize is that this is actually a design choice. Another design choice is to calculate what variables were affected by one of the input bits, unset these variables, flip the input bit value, and continue running the calculation. This has the following requirements:

  1. A way to quickly determine which intermediate values depend on which other ones so we can unset variables and know which intermediate, already calculated, dependent variables also need to be unset.
  2. A way to quickly unset variables
  3. A good set of intermediary values so we can keep as much state of the calculation as possible

If you think about it, the above is what SAT solvers do, well mostly. In fact, they do (1) only partially: they allow variables only to be unset in reverse chronological order. Calculating and maintaining a complete dependency graph seems too expensive. So we unset more variables than we need to. But we can unset them quickly and correctly and we compensate for the lack of correct dependency check in (1) by caching polarities. This caches the independent-but-nevertheless-unset variables’ values and then hopes to reassign them later to the correct value. Not perfect, but not too shabby either.

Modeling and intermediary variables

To satisfy requirement (3) one must have a good set of intermediary variables in the input problem (described in DIMACS format), so the SAT solver can both backtrack and evaluate partially. Unfortunately, this is not really in the hands of the SAT solver. It is in the hands of the person describing the problem. Modeling is the art of transforming a problem that is usually expressed in natural language (such as “A person cannot be scheduled to be on a night shift twice in a row”) into a problem that can be given to a SAT solver.

Modeling has lots of interesting constraints, one of which I often hear and I am confused by: that it should minimize the number of variables. Given the above, that SAT solvers can be seen at as partial evaluation engines that thrive on the fact that they can partially evaluate and partially backtrack, why would anyone try to minimize the number of variables? If the solver has no intermediary variables to backtrack to, the solver will simply backtrack all the way to the beginning every time, thus becoming a really bad brute-force engine that incidentally tracks a dependency graph and is definitely non-optimized for the task at hand.

Some final thoughts

In the above I tried to take a premise, i.e. that SAT solvers are just search engines, and ran with it. I don’t think the results are that surprising. Of course, nothing is black-and-white. Having hundreds of millions of variables in your input is not exactly optimal. But minimizing the number of variables given to a SAT solver at the expense of expressive intermediate variables is a huge no-no.

Bosphorus, an ANF and CNF simplifier and converter

I am happy to finally release a piece of work that I have started many years ago at Security Research Labs (many thanks to Karsten Nohl there). Back in the days, it helped us to break multiple real-world ciphers. The released system is called Bosphorus and has been released with major, game-changing work by Davin Choo and Kian Ming A. Chai from DSO National Laboratories Singapore and great help by Kuldeep Meel from NUS. The paper will be published at the DATE 2019 conference.

ANFs and CNFs

Algebraic Normal Form is a form that is used by most cryptographers to describe symmetric ciphers, hash algorithms, and lately a lot of post-quantum asymmetric ciphers. It’s a very simple notation that basically looks like this:

x1 ⊕ x2 ⊕ x3 = 0
x1 * x2 ⊕ x2 * x3 + 1 = 0

Where “⊕” represents XOR and “*” represents the AND operator. So the first line here is an XOR of binary variables x1, x2 and x3 and their XOR must be equal to 0. The second line means that “(x1 AND x2) XOR (x2 AND x3)” must be equal to 1. This normal form allows to see a bunch of interesting things. For example, it allows us to see the so-called “maximum degree” of the set of equations, where the degree is the maximum number of variables AND-ed together in one line. The above set of equations has a maximum degree of 2, as (x1*x2) is of degree 2. Degrees can often be a good indicator for the complexity of a problem.

What’s good about ANFs is that there are a number of well-known algorithms to break problems described in them. For example, one can do (re)linearization and Gauss-Jordan elimination, or one could run Grobner-basis algorithms such as F4/F5 on it. Sometimes, the ANFs can also be solved by converting them to another normal form, Conjunctive Normal Form (CNF), used by SAT solvers. The CNF normal form looks like:

x1 V x2 V x3
-x1 V x3

Where x1, x2 and x3 are binary variables, “V” is the logical OR, and each line must be equal to TRUE. Using CNF is interesting, because the solvers used to solve them, SAT solvers, typically provide a different set of trade-offs for solving than ANF problem solvers. SAT solvers tend to use more CPU time but a lot less memory, sometimes making problems viable to solve in the “real world”. Whereas sometimes breaking of a cipher is enough to be demonstrated on paper, it also happens that one wants to break a cipher in the real world.

Bridging and Simplifying

Bosphorus is I believe a first of its kind system that allows ANFs to be simplified using both CNF- and ANF-based systems. It can also convert between the two normal forms and can act both as an ANF and a CNF preprocessor, like SatELite (by Een and Biere) was for CNF. I believe this makes Bosphorus unique and also uniquely useful, especially if you are working on ANFs.

Bosphorus uses an iterative architecture that performs the following set of steps, either until it runs out of time or until fixedpoint:

  1. Replace variables and propagate constants in the ANF
  2. Run limited Extended Linarization (XL) and inject back unit and binary XORs
  3. Run limited ElimLin and inject back unit and binary XORs
  4. Convert to CNF, run a SAT solver for a limited number of conflicts and inject back unit and binary (and potentially longer) XORs

In other words, the system is an iterative simplifier/preprocessor that invokes multiple reasoning systems to try to simplify the problem as much as possible. It can outright solve the system, as most of these reasoning systems are complete, but the point is to run them only to a certain limit and inject back into the ANF the easily “digestible” information. The simplified ANF can then either be output as an ANF or a CNF.

Bosphorus can also take a CNF as input, perform the trivial transformation of it to ANF and then treat it as an ANF. This allows the CNF to be simplified using techniques previously unavailable to CNF systems, such as XL.

ANF to CNF Conversion

I personally think that ANF-to-CNF conversion is actually not that hard, and that’s why there hasn’t been too much academic effort devoted to it. However, it’s an important step without which a lot of opportunities would be missed.

The implemented system contains a pretty advanced ANF-to-CNF converter, using Karnaugh tables through Espresso, XOR cutting, monomial reuse, etc. It should give you a pretty optimal CNF for all ANFs. So you can use Bosphorus also just as an ANF-to-CNF converter, though it’s so much more.

Final Thoughts

What I find coolest about Bosphorus is that it can simplify/preprocess ANF systems so more heavyweight ANF solvers can have a go at them. Its ANF simplification is so powerful, it can even help to solve some CNFs by lifting them to ANF, running the ANF simplifiers, converting it back to CNF, and solving that(!). I believe our initial results, published in the paper, are very encouraging. Further, the system is in a ready-to-use state: there is a Docker image, the source should build without a hitch, and there is even a precompiled Linux binary. Good luck using it, and let me know how it went!