(This was originally posted a few months ago at https://medium.com/on-banking/how-to-secure-your-bitcoins-29b86892fc64.)
In the past few months, I’ve spent a good amount of time investigating different solutions for Bitcoin storage. I’m writing this to share the knowledge I’ve gained and to help you make informed choices about securing your bitcoins. I won’t cover all of the products in this space — that would require a much longer post — just the ones that I think are relevant to the average user.
Before I go into the details I want to emphasize that great solutions to this problem don’t exist. Every solution involves different security/usability tradeoffs. The more usable ones put your coins at greater risk of theft and the more secure put your coins at greater risk of loss — it’s indeed possible to store your coins so securely that you’ll end up securing them from yourself. With this in mind, I’ll walk you through the options that I think strike the right balance for most people. The only condition for my advice is that if you follow it and you end up losing your coins you won’t blame me for it!
If you have a small amount of coins, if you need them available online for day-to-day spending, or if you want a user friendly option use Coinbase or Blockchain.info. They’ve both been around for a few years — an eternity in Bitcoin terms. They both have mobile apps, at least for Android, but iOS users are currently out of luck (sadly, Apple has removed all Bitcoin wallets from the App Store). They allow you to easily access your account from multiple machines. They provide two factor auth, an important requirement for online wallet security. Coinbase also has daily spend limits after which a second two factor auth check kicks in, which is a nice security feature.
The main difference from a security perspective between Coinbase and Blockchain.info is that Coinbase holds the private keys for your bitcoins on their servers whereas Blockchain.info encrypts them on the client with your password and only stores the encrypted keys on the server.
As a consequence, if you use Coinbase and Coinbase gets hacked or disappears tomorrow due to some calamity you will lose your coins.
This may sound alarming, but I believe the probably this would happen is low. Coinbase’s team is competent, they follow strong security practices, and they’re backed by some of the best VCs in the industry. However, the risk of loss for Coinbase does exist, so I wouldn’t recommend putting in Coinbase a significant chunk of your life savings.
(Remember: no Bitcoin wallet has the equivalent of FDIC insurance like a bank account. Once the coins are gone, they’re gone.)
Using Blockchain.info protects you from their disappearing or getting hacked. If you keep a wallet backup you can decrypt your private keys locally as described here. However, you can still lose your coins if your phone or computer gets hacked or if an attacker gets his or her hands on your encrypted wallet and you’ve chosen a weak password. This would let the attacker brute force your private keys and steal your coins.
(When using Bitcoin wallets always choose a secure password. It should be long, it should contain a combination of letters, numbers and symbols, and it should be unique. Also, never reuse passwords because it could seriously compromise their security.)
Open source is another important consideration. Blockchain.info has open sourced all of their client wallet code, so its security could be vetted by experts. This is a baseline requirement for any wallet application that directly handles private keys.
Coinbase has also open sourced their Android and now delisted iOS app but this is less relevant because as opposed to Blockchain.info their client apps don’t touch private keys. Nonetheless, Coinbase should be given credit for open sourcing their apps as it gives security experts the ability to at least rule out some possible attacks.
This covers the options that I consider user friendly yet still decently secure. Let’s move on to the options that would give you much greater control over the security of your coins at the cost of much greater complexity. As you’ve probably guessed, this involves putting them in cold storage.
The two main contenders in this arena are Armory and Electrum. They both let you generate your private keys on an offline machine and only transfer your public keys to an online machine, where they can receive bitcoins but but not send them. These clients are both deterministic, which implies that all their private keys could be generated from a single seed — a randomly generated 128 bit number or easily remembered passphrase— which makes them easy to back up. Being deterministic also also allows them to generate new receiving addresses from the seed’s public key. This is an important feature because in most cases you don’t want to reuse addresses when receiving bitcoins in order to protect the privacy of your wallet balance on the public blockchain.
The main difference between Armory and Electrum is that Armory downloads the full blockchain (Armory uses bitcoind as its backend) and Electrum uses a third party server to only receive information about the addresses it holds. This makes Armory slow, private, and secure and Electrum fast, less private and somewhat less secure. Electrum is less private because the remote server to which your client connects knows your IP address and which addresses your wallet requested. It’s also less secure because a malicious remote server could lie to the client about its bitcoin balance. However, this weakness doesn’t compromise your private keys, which is the primary concern for offline wallets.
Of course, both products are open source, which is a baseline security requirement for client side wallets.
MultiBit is another noteable option because, like Armory, it relies on the P2P network to query the state of the blockchain. MultiBit is also fast because it only queries the subset of the blockchain’s blocks that are relevant to the addresses in the wallet (this is called SPV mode). This makes MultiBit more user friendly than Armory at the cost of some security because an attacker that controls the internet connection could feed the client false information about the wallet’s balance, similar to a malicious Electrum server.
MultiBit is also more private than Electrum because rather than querying the addresses it cares about directly it queries them using a bloom filter that matches a superset of those addresses. However, I don’t know precisely how much privacy this would give you because presumably the remote nodes could infer which addresses the user owns within some confidence interval. Maybe someone who’s an expert in SPV mode could expand on this.
I don’t recommend MultiBit at the moment because it’s not deterministic, which makes it harder to back up. The developers announced that a future release will enable deterministic wallets, at which point MultiBit will become a strong contender for secure yet usable offline bitcoin storage.
The most important thing you have to remember before you embark on this cold storage security journey (and it is a serious journey, as you’ll soon see), is that if your private keys ever touch a machine that’s connected to the internet you should assume they’re compromised and that your coins will be stolen.
This is because, if you’re truly paranoid, you should know that computers fundamentally cannot be trusted. It’s impossible to know what really goes on within a computer. It could have viruses, rootkits, software vulnerabilities, and even compromised hardware. If that computer has access to your private keys and it can send them over the internet, whoever controls your computer can steal your bitcoins.
With this warning in mind, let’s walk through the steps you should take to set up secure cold storage. I’m going to describe the Electrum method because I’m more familiar with it but Armory should be similar.
1) Get an old computer you won’t use for anything else. Reformat it and and install Linux on it. I recommend either Debian or Ubuntu. Make sure this computer never connects to the internet.
(When you format this machine, you should ideally encrypt your partitions — including your swap parition — for extra security. Otherwise, your OS could inadvertently write your private keys unencrypted to disc while it swaps them out of memory, allowing an attacker that gets his hands on the machine to steal your private keys.)
2) Download Electrum onto your online machine and copy it to your offline machine from a USB drive.
(Note that even USB drives can carry viruses, so it’s recommended to use a new USB drive that hasn’t touched any other machines. However, those viruses are unlikely to infect Linux machines, so if you followed step 1 you should be fairly safe).
3) Verify the binary’s GPG signature before you install it (these MultiBit instructions should apply to Electrum users too). Follow the installation instructions to install Electrum on both machines.
4) On the offline machine, create a new wallet. Choose a strong password for encrypting this wallet on disk. Write the wallet’s seed on a piece of paper.
5) Copy the public key from the offline machine to the Electrum client running on your online machine. At this point, Electrum on the online machine should be able to generate public keys for receiving bitcoins but wouldn’t be able to spend them it wouldn’t have access to the private keys, which are safely store exclusively on the offline machine. (This process is described in more detail here.)
6) As a test, send a small amount of coins to the first few addresses generated by the wallet. Then create a new wallet on the online machine, enter the seed from the offline machine, and verify your wallet has been completely restored and that you can spend the funds. Send the coins back to the the online wallet from which you sent them to verify Electrum could send them successfully.
7) If everything worked as expected, repeat steps 4-5. You should repeat those steps because the moment you’ve entered your seed into the online machine you could have compromised it so you shouldn’t use it anymore to protect your offline keys.
(If you’re truly paranoid you should should use something like Diceware http://world.std.com/~reinhold/diceware.html because there’s a chance your computer’s random number generator isn’t going to generate sufficent entropy. It sounds crazy, but this kind of bug has happened before with certain Android wallets.)
8) Send your remaining coins to the new wallet you created. Store the seed on paper in a secure place, or in multiple secure places as you see fit (e.g. in safes, bank vaults, or whereever else you feel safe).
9) For even stronger security of your paper backups, you should consider generating two factor paper backups for your wallet’s seeds by encrypting them with your password as described in BIP38. This would prevent anyone that gets your paper backups from stealing your coins if they don’t also know your password. The process for doing this will be left as an exercise to the reader.
If you’ve read this far, this is a good time to stop and ask yourself: are you sure you still want to own bitcoins? ☺
As you can see, Bitcoin security is quite complicated and hard to get right, even for people that have the understanding and the patience to put their coins in offline storage. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons that Bitcoin isn’t quite ready for the mainstream.
That said, the future for Bitcoin security looks bright. New wallets that use multisig addresses to protect bitcoins behind multiple private keys are coming, and once they’re vetted by the experts I’ll update this post or write a new post with my latest recommendations. I’ve also started working on a project that I hope will improve security for Bitcoin users but I‘m not ready to make any promises or announcements about it. ☺
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