Presentation Master Thesis Tobias Büttner: “Security of Helium’s Native Blockchain Protocol and its Proof of Coverage”

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On 27. March 2023 at 1 pm, Tobias Büttner will present his master thesis titled “Security of Helium’s Native Blockchain Protocol and its Proof of Coverage”.

You can join the Zoom meeting using the following details:

Meeting ID: 698 3733 8832 Passcode: 666778


It is undeniable that the introduction of Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology revolutionized how distributed systems can achieve secure data storage, even under assumptions of permissionless setups that allow any party to join without having to fulfill particular trust assumptions. In this context, Bitcoin and most early blockchains build on the concept of Proof of Work, which achieves resilience against sibyl attacks by assuming that the majority of computational power is held by honest parties. However, its required computationally expensive proofs have been widely critiqued for their resulting high energy demand and thus bad environmental impact, while serving no practical purpose other than securing the blockchain itself.

In this regard, the launch of the Helium network in 2019 promised to revolutionize blockchains further, by replacing Proof of Work with a more meaningful Proof of Coverage approach. For the first time, the authors suggested, it was possible to maintain a blockchain solely by proofing useful work outside of the blockchain, namely providing network coverage for the public either via LoRaWAN or 5G. However, since its initial introduction, Helium has undergone many changes to address issues and keep up with its growth, and in fact turned away from using Proof of Coverage as means to avoid sibyl attacks, instead resorting to a Proof of Stake-based approach. Furthermore, the Helium team plans to move away from their native blockchain entirely, and to instead rebuild their system on top of another blockchain, Solana. Accordingly, the question arises whether Helium abandoned part of their initially praised innovations due to a shift in priorities, or due to possibly unfixable issues with their design. Furthermore, it is interesting to investigate whether this last iteration of Helium’s native blockchain can be considered secure by common permissionless blockchain standards.

Consequently, this thesis formalizes Helium’s native blockchain implementation and Proof of Coverage mechanism, as it exists before Helium’s move to Solana. Furthermore, I take a look at the assumptions required to achieve a secure Proof of Coverage in the current implementation, which turn out to be unrealistic and thus fail to secure the blockchain in practice. Additionally, I show the security of the native Helium blockchain protocol’s construction, and analyze in which areas the expectations for permissionless blockchains are still lacking, as certain powers are reserved to privileged parties such as Helium founders and core developers. Finally, I provide an outlook and short evaluation on how the planned switch to the Solana blockchain will likely affect Proof of Coverage and decentralization aspects.