This article was originally published on The Daily Chain, 30th April 2020.
“Nothing really special was in the introduction, I guess, and we are still in contact.”
— Andrey Sabelnikov, April 2020, speaking of Nicolas van Saberhagen
The Godfather of CryptoNote
After today you will never forget the name Andrey Sabelnikov.
The origins of CryptoNote, the technology used in Monero and hundreds of other privacy coins is shrouded in more mystery than Bitcoin. CryptNote borrowed ideas from Bitcoin, but is a completely different technology focused on private financial transactions.
Bytecoin, the first CryptoNote coin (from which Monero forked), and the CryptoNote Project also remain complete enigmas. The former is considered by many to be a scam because of its uncertain origins, and presumed premine. That Bytecoin was the first CryptoNote coin is not contested.
As with Bitcoin, the CryptoNote story begins with a whitepaper appearing, as if out of nowhere. Its anonymous author, the Satoshi of CryptoNote, is Nicolas van Saberhagen. Some have speculated that Saberhagen and Sabelnikov are one and the same, but the Russian who graduated from Saint Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation as a system programming engineer before working in the antivirus space for eight years, denies any such link.
Sabelnikov says he worked with him, and in what is a stunning revelation unknown publicly before today, remains in contact with Saberhagen.
Andrey Sabelnikov wrote the code for the very first implementation of CryptoNote, was hired by Bytecoin, and later founded Boolberry under the handle crypto_zoidberg.
In December 2018 Sabelnikov published a whitepaper, Zano, and that same month outed himself as the man behind crypto_zoidberg in a Bitcointalk post.
Many Zano testnet releases followed, and in May 2019 the mainnet for this next-generation CryptoNote coin, with hybrid consensus and in-protocol escrow, finally launched.
Andrey Sabelnikov has never publicly discussed his relationship with Nicolas van Saberhagen, his work with Bytecoin, his feelings about Monero and Zcash, and his new project Zano.
Today on The Daily Chain we talk to the mind behind the code, The Godfather of CryptoNote, in this exclusive and stunning interview.
From CryptoNote to Zano: An Interview with Andrey Sabelnikov
Are you the author of the CryptoNote paper, Nicolas van Saberhagen?
I’m not. I’ve been invited to that project, so we were working together, I built architecture, network, core, wallet. But real genius behind the idea was person with pseudonym “Nikolas van Saberhagen”
Can you please tell us more about your work with Saberhagen, how you were introduced, and when you were last in contact?
Nothing really special was in the introduction I guess, and we are still in contact.
You mentioned a “project” and “wallet”. Was that Bytecoin, or were you involved in Bytecoin?
Yes, it was Bytecoin, the first implementation of CryptoNote technology.
What would you say to those who call Bytecoin a scam?
Well, I can answer only no matter what I personally think, I have NDA signed with my ex-employer and I can’t discuss any business matter associated with this project.
If somebody were to ask you to prove you coded Bytecoin, could you?
Well, there were so many proofs in the code, that even Ricardo [former Monero lead dev, fluffypony] admitted that I was the original developer of CryptoNote. The whole original codebase of CryptoNote was based on my personal library named “epee”, and this library even never been public before. Also, I intentionally left a track to myself by using “Bender’s nightmare” joke in signatures.
What do you think of Monero? Does it bother you that Monero is synonymous with CryptoNote, and misunderstood by many to have actually created it ?
Well, i had a lot of negative experience in the past with “Monero Clan”, a group of Monero supporters who was quite aggressive to me and my work, since the very beginning they’ve been constantly attacking my project and me personally, explicitly or implicitly, at the same time copying my commits and ideas. And Ricardo keeps doing this even now, last time someone sent me his tweet where he stated that all people who were involved in creation of CryptoNote are criminals, which is a shameless lie.
But these days Monero is a huge community of contributors (developers/researchers/supporters) who have no idea what has been done in the past, and a lot of those people are creating great value for this project. Monero did a great job for popularization of the technology that we have created, and keep improving this technology, which i think it’s great.
Please describe your feelings about the CryptoNote protocol. Do you admire it, are you proud of it, does it inspire?
I believe that the appearance of CryptoNote on the stage made a huge impact on the blockchain industry, especially from a privacy perspective, and I’m really happy to be a part of this, but I believe that this is just a beginning of blockchain evolution and there’s a lot of work ahead.
After CryptoNote came Zcash with an implementation of zero-knowledge proofs on a Bitcoin fork. I have heard it said that the mathematically provable anonymity granted by Zcash tech provides stronger anonymity than CryptoNote’s use of ring-signatures and stealth addresses. What is you opinion on this subject, and what do you think of Zcash?
Obviously ZCash is a strong and solid technology which might have potential to outperform CryptoNote, but to my knowledge a lot of privacy adepts are concerned about issues with trusted setup. Also ZCash is a fork of Bitcoin, while CryptoNote is a system which aimed to be more private by design from the very beginning. Just a small example: before I came to crypto I was working for antimalware and network security companies for about 8 years.
When I began my work on CryptoNote I made the wallet as a separate process for security reasons because I knew how dangerous it is to keep sensitive data in the same address space of the process which handles internet requests. Also it was better to make a node wallet-agnostic from an architecture perspective. While in the Bitcoin wallet this is handled in the same process, and wallet code might have an impact on the behavior of the node. This led to a bug in Zcash(which is a Bitcoin fork) in 2019, which caused leaking of IP addresses(ZCash core acted different when handling specifically modified transactions if those transactions were related to the wallet). In CryptoNote those types of leaks are impossible by design.
In 2018 you published a paper (this one is definitely yours — it has your name on the cover page). Is Zano a major evolution for the CryptoNote protocol? What are the major differences?
(Last white paper dated 2019) Yes, it definitely is a major evolution. First of all we secured transaction history with new hybrid PoW/PoS consensus model, because classic PoW consensus (also called Nakamoto consensus) is shown to be vulnerable, and to implement PoS properly in CryptoNote core we did deep refactoring and rewrote nearly all the code of the core. Another focus of our research and development was improving core scalability — during core refactoring we built an asynchronous model which allows core to handle multiple requests simultaneously, even during exclusive operations, which is super important for network reliability and stability during high transaction flow. We also supported peer-to-peer eCommerce by implementing multisig blockchain based escrow contracts. Well, we basically do evolution of our project with every new build and I can talk about improvements non stop.
Tell us the Boolberry story, and please tell us about your latest project Zano
Boolberry has never been abandoned, my focus was on creating this new technology for quite a long time, longer than it was expected, and at the same time I kept my eyes on Boolberry, keeping it healthy. Originally my plan was to give Boolberry holders opportunity to benefit from my work, by bringing all improvements into BBR, but then i came to the conclusion that to provide BBR holders continuous delivery we should create a new sustainable model for project funding, which may contradict with some “traditional” crypto model of non-premined projects, like Boolberry was.
So we came up with the idea of creating a development fund(from premine), which is supposed to cover project expenses, and ideally we can use only “staked” coins to cover expenses and development fund remains intact, which let us have project funded forever.
We couldn’t do premine in Boolberry, since it already launched and we didn’t know if every BBR holder would like our new approach or not, and from my experience there is always someone who will oppose whatever is proposed. Since we wanted to give all Boolberry holders a opportunity to benefit from Zano, we decided to make a coinswap from Boolberry to Zano with rate 1:1, which means that every Boolberry holder could get equal amount of Zano, but only in exchange for Boolberries(those coins got burned in Boolberry network), so it was not a free money or another finance bubble.
How is Zano funded?
As I mentioned above, we created a dev fund with the coins which are to be spent only to cover project expenses. Some of the long time Boolberry holders and avid supporters of the project have helped us with funding through OTC deals to keep selling pressure off the exchanges
Lots of interesting advancements populate Zano’s roadmap (e.g sharding). What can the crypto space expect from Zano over the next 12 months?
Basically I see two primary matters for crypto and also for Zano particularly. First is obviously privacy, this is our first focus of research. Second is scalability, and I believe that sharding is a right way to achieve that. At this moment we are doing a lot of research to learn about sharding in other projects, such as TON or Polkadot, and planning to move Zano technology forward to a scalable solution near the end of 2020 or in the beginning 2021.
This space has changed a great deal since the CryptoNote paper was published. What have been your greatest surprises and disappointments during this time?
Greatest surprise was definitely on a day, when I was driving somewhere and listening to the radio, and in daily summary of financial indicators they started to report Bitcoin price, I guess it was in 2018. It’s not that this radio had influence or a big audience — absolutely not, radio itself now is something archaic, but it was a good sign that adoption of Bitcoin is very global now. Greatest disappointment was … well I guess it was the wave of many scam ICOs which led to nothing, it did so much hurt to the industry, some of my fellows still think that cryptocurrencies is a global scam because of that.
There ends my first interview with Andrey. He has agreed to come back to The Daily Chain to discuss Zano in greater detail, with its hybrid consensus, revolution in scaling, and eCommerce platform.
To those who cannot wait I provide links below to find out more about Sabelnikov’s magnus opus.
“I believe that the appearance of CryptoNote on the stage made a huge impact on the blockchain industry, especially from a privacy perspective, and I’m really happy to be a part of this, but I believe that this is just a beginning of blockchain evolution and there’s a lot of work ahead.”
— Andrey N Sabelnikov, April 2020