Crypto

Computer scientist looking for costly bugs in cryptographic code

Johnson may have wanted to hire Ronhui Gu.

Gu is the co-founder of CertiK, the largest smart contract auditor in the turbulent and unpredictable world of cryptocurrencies and Web3. An affable and talkative Columbia University computer science professor, Gu leads a team of more than 250 people who dig into the cryptographic code, trying to make sure it’s not riddled with bugs.

The work of CertiK will not save you from losing money when the cryptocurrency collapses. It will also not prevent the crypto exchange from misusing your funds. But it can help prevent irreparable damage due to a missed software glitch. The company’s clients include some of the biggest crypto players such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club and the Ronin Network, which uses the blockchain used in games. Clients sometimes come to Gu after losing hundreds of millions, hoping that he can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“It’s a real wild world,” Gu laughs.

Cryptocode is much more ruthless than traditional software. Silicon Valley engineers usually try to make their programs as bug-free as possible before they are released, but if a problem or bug is discovered later, the code can be updated.

This is not possible for many crypto projects. They operate using smart contracts, computer code that manages transactions. (Let’s say you want to pay an artist 1 ETH for an NFT; a smart contract can be coded to automatically send you an NFT token once the money is in the artist’s wallet.) The point is that once the smart contract code is active on the blockchain you cannot update it. If you find a mistake, it will be too late: the whole point of blockchains is that you cannot change what is written in them. To make matters worse, the code hosted on the blockchain is public, so hackers can study it at will and look for bugs to exploit.

The number of hacks is dizzying and they are extremely lucrative. At the beginning of last year, more than $320 million worth of cryptocurrencies were stolen from the Wormhole Network. Back then, the Ronin network lost over $600 million in cryptocurrencies.

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