Before it crashed, the DAO embodied the greatest technical accomplishment – and the coming wave of progress – that the Ethereum blockchain had made possible.
Intelligent contract and blockchain were interlinked concepts. In Vitalik Buterin’s early writings outlining the network of computers that would become Ethereum, the world’s second largest blockchain by market cap but the largest developer operation, he put forward the concept of fully decentralized, autonomous companies or organizations (or DACs and DAOs).
The DAO, which was called as the first encoded version of the idea, was the evidence that the revolutionary world of venture capitalism itself could be disrupted. Approximately $150 million in ether has been donated to the initiative, and more than 50 projects have been funded under a smart contract that no one owns.
Then he was attacked. On Friday morning in June 2016, a still-anonymous hacker (or hacker) exploited a code vulnerability and confiscated tens of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency. Copycats followed shortly after. Investors removed their funds, a “dark DAO” was spun up to shield the remaining ones, and a serious debate erupted about when it would be acceptable to fork hard or roll back events on a blockchain.
Four years after The DAO Hack, Matthew Leising, a seasoned reporter for Bloomberg News, is unaware of what it all meant. The obvious lessons about market exuberance and protection have largely gone unheeded, as demonstrated by the ICO bubble that emerged years ago and the rise of DeFi today.
“It goes back to Vitalik ‘s vision of a decentralized network where people might do whatever they want,” Leising said. “If you give people the versatility and artistic license, you’re going to get insane ventures.”
In his new novel, “Out of the Ether: The Remarkable Story of Ethereum and the $55 Million Heist That Almost Ruined It All,” Leising traces the events leading up to and following the crucial moment (excerpted here). CoinDesk caught up with him to discuss The DAO ‘s legacy and what Leising feels comes next in blockchain.
What do you think the DAO hack’s most enduring legacy has been?
It had a short life impact, I guess. At the time , I think people understood that the smart contract was supposed to be capped, that it shouldn’t have been allowed to expand to $150 million in ether, particularly because it’s so young. At the time, Ethereum was just a year old. There was supposed to be some emergency stop button or safety hatch, some way to take control if something went wrong.
I love the concept of decentralized government, but when you’re writing in a language like Solidity, which was also less than a year old, you have to be in a state of failure. Particularly considering the number of bugs that were found in the DAO before the hack.
You have to be careful when dealing with other people’s money. I wish I could tell you that these lessons have been learned, I don’t think they have. I think we’re seeing the same mistakes made in DeFi right now. The money slotting around is just crazy. It’s even worse in other ways, with people announcing that they haven’t audited the code.
At least they did security audits with the DAO, but there were still issues. When you compile in a language like Solidity, you’re going to have problems with it. There needs to be a lot more vetting before these ventures come out so that real people don’t risk their money.
It seems like it’s going to get to the fundamental crypto passion. People are drawn to danger and uncertainty.
You can’t really cap the excitement, and I don’t think you’d want to. It goes back to Vitalik ‘s idea of an open forum where people could do whatever they wanted. If you give people the freedom and creative license, you’re going to get insane ventures. The only thing you can do about it is not to participate.
I think some important things are being done to resolve this issue. Fabian Vogelsteller is looking at “reversible ICOs.” He’s the guy who wrote the ERC-20 code that enabled ICOs, and he’s now trying to do that. He’s set up a donation system that allows people to take their money out whenever they want. But it’s not like you throw the ETH in the tub, and the Dev team should go out and buy the lambs.
I will trust someone like Fabian over an anonymous guy like Sushi Chef. These are the questions you need to ask. Who are the people behind this project? Are the amounts known? Have they been in Ethereum for some time, or are they coming out of the woodwork?
You decide not to name the DAO hacker in a book and write that several sources you’ve come across have their doubts but are often hesitant to do so. Do you think the crypto has a flaw with pseudonymity?
I want to make it clear that there have been a variety of different DAO assaults, which is something that not many people know. The $55 million attack on Friday is actually what people think when they talk about the DAO attack.
There was an assault on the following Tuesday. That’s where I’ve been able to get some leads, do some reporting and track down someone I think I’ve been involved with. It was a copycat, I believe. The code for the attack contract had already been circulated.
They were too sloppy for me to track them. That to me means they weren’t very cautious, while the intruder on Friday covered their tracks very well. You’re going to see how the ether and bitcoin scrambled. They knew what they were doing, and they were very diligent about it.
I’m pushing the ball forward here a little bit, but I haven’t been able to go very far in finding anyone involved in the $55 million robbery.
If anything, the pace and variety of attacks has only picked up – but they seem to have become less and less significant. Do you think the industry has acknowledged that attacks are just one of the threats that we have to face?
If you’re talking about people losing large sums of their money, I think people are just as concerned today as they were in 2016. I can’t speak for the industry, but given the pace at which these things happen, there seems to be a part of the industry that downplays protection.
Anyone who trades crypto at this stage should know not to leave your coins on an exchange – that’s the stupidest thing you can do.
Through all the politics and backstopping, the idea was so strong and true that Ethereum endured.
I’m not sure if you know people coming into space. Coinbase and Gemini are like a dream of hackers. You need to have your money in a wallet on a blockchain. There are only some simple things people should be doing. But is there enough education to do that? Is there someone here asking them to take these steps? Coinbase is definitely not telling people, “Now that you bought your BTC, switch it away from our exchange and put it in your wallet.” That’s not in their interest.
People make fun of the SEC and CFTC on the regulatory front in the U.S., but they’re great at educating potential investors on how to keep their money secure while buying and selling in markets.
What were you most shocked to learn about Vitalik when you were reading the book?
Vitalik really clicked for me after his dad shared some of the document he wrote when he was seven called the Bunnies Encyclopedia. It was this 20-page Word document that he wrote because he was completely fascinated with bunnies. It’s very impressive.
For certain people, you find a certain information in their lives that kind of unlocks or encapsulates them. I figured it was the bunny book for him. We all know he ‘s smart, but he’s funny and meticulous, too. As a seven year old, he put all this energy into this matter. It helped me to see him as a human until I had that.
I also didn’t realize that there was such a shy*tshow behind the scenes of the Ethereum Base. After six months, people were fired, reorganized, and then more people were fired. They sought to straighten out by getting in the board of directors and the executive director – but they had been at each other’s throats from the beginning.
I love the story of all the people who have come together to build Ethereum, and the mismanagement of it since the beginning. It’s never really got any better. The idea was so strong and true, amid all the politics and backstabbing, that it survived all that.
Do you think they’re going to be able to effectively handle the transition to Eth 2.0?
Ok, I hope so. It’s been a long time to come. I interviewed Vitalik at Devcon3 in 2017, where he said the proof-of-stakes will be here by the end of the year. Another thing I’ve found about Ethereum is that it’s never produced on time. They figured they’d be able to do the crowds on Tuesday after the Miami Bitcoin Meeting. It’s been six months late. They’ve always had a timeline challenge.
That being said, I’ve begun to see signs that Eth 2.0 is coming closer to fruition. I have no reason to say that they would not be able to deliver.
You seem to have really bought into the vision of Ethereum. What the heck are you most curious about?
I ‘m interested in all the Web 3.0 applications being built on Ethereum that enable people to take control of their data and privacy. We’re beginning to see the mature guy. Metamask has already gone mobile. There are genuinely decentralized web applications in operation.
It comes to the heart of the idealism that people like Gavin Woods, Vitalik and Neha Nerula have had from the beginning. These people always think they could change the world, and they’re doing a job to help make that happen.
It’s sluggish, it’s piecemeal. Yet the vision is now stronger than it has ever been in the past. Ethereum, DeFi, Web 3.0 would be replacements, but they’re not going to substitute anything. Bitcoin won’t replace the US dollar as a global currency, but it’s an alternative.
Both of these things, if they’re done properly, can be a secure solution for those who want more protection. Most people want the comfort of anonymity, and that’s up to them. But there’s not a lot of options right now.
The promise is going to propel this forward. It almost seems like a return to what the internet had in the beginning. Andreas Antonopoulos says we need to recentralize the site – it feels like what’s going on here. Google doesn’t go down, but I want an alternative.
What do you think the next big crypto book is going to be about?
I think the Tether saga – if anyone could say the tale and get all the information. I was trying. It’s very hard. I always think there’s a bitcoin story to tell. But space is going so quickly, it’s hard to tell.