Dug Campbell

Sybil The Fake

In the project that takes up most of my time, Sybil resistance is a big thing. The name comes from a well-known attack vector in computer science whereby an attempt is made to gain control of a distributed peer-to-peer network by someone who maliciously creates many nodes in order to take control of the system overall.

I first discovered the concept when I stumbled across the Bitcoin White Paper all those years ago. I spent many hours solidly reading, researching and re-reading that paper repeatedly as I was struck by a growing belief about just how seismic the repercussions of those eight pages could be. And in true Bitcoin fashion, this area was simply yet another that was touched upon in passing (Proof of Work in Bitcoin makes Sybil attacks much more expensive as it increases the costs and difficulties substantially for anyone who’s trying to take over the network), rather than the full story.

Preventing Sybil attacks is a challenge that must be faced by every open, permissionless network – and solved. But you might wonder where the name originally came from in the first place.

The answer is a 1973 book called ‘Sybil’ which recounted a case study of an individual who suffered from dissociative identity disorder (i.e. multiple personalities). Her psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and the book’s author, Flora Schreiber ended up rich from the book’s success. But it turns out that Shirley Ardell Mason‘s 16 different identities may in fact have have been fabricated. Partly because the patient was administered strong drugs over a long period of time, some of which were well-known to produce hallucinations.

If you’re interested, there’s a book that explains the story in much greater detail. But you have to admit, it’s somewhat ironic that a term which is used today as a shorthand for malicious activities in a networked society is in fact based on dishonesty at its core – albeit not the creation of pseudonymous personalities after all.