Can Bitcoin Survive An Apocalypse?
Could Bitcoin stick it out like a roach, or would a worldwide collapse lead to the inevitable demise of Bitcoin?
We often use the term “anti-fragile” or “censorship-resistant” to describe Bitcoin. But do these terms still apply if the internet is intentionally cut off or if some horrible, catastrophic event ends up happening?
The short answer? Yes, Bitcoin can survive an apocalypse. Not only this, but Bitcoin is actually the most robust network on the planet, as well as the most likely to stay alive in some sort of apocalyptic situation.
Do you need internet service in order to use Bitcoin? No. Do you need power from the grid? No. The idea of “off-grid” Bitcoin usage is one that encompasses many different rabbit holes which we’ll be exploring. This article is an attempt to answer a hypothetical question and to show that there are already different options to send bitcoin which don’t depend on the internet or power grid.
Bitcoin is apocalypse-resistant money. This is a result of the many different resources, ideas and accomplishments that hardworking and innovative Bitcoiners have made.
An interesting question about this was raised during Magical Crypto Conference 2019, when Elaine Ou asked Adam Back, CEO of Blockstream, “So, if China were to nuke us tomorrow, and we nuke them back, and all the internet exchange points were totally annihilated, is it conceivable that people could use their decentralized technologies and rebuild the Bitcoin network?”
Adam’s response: “I think the Bitcoin network would continue to operate through this event, surprisingly. I mean, the hash rate would go down. But I’m assuming that there’s some mining in the Swiss Alps in a bunker, or in New Zealand, or somewhere remote like this. There are pockets that would continue to be cross-connected, potentially using satellite equipment.”
There are many examples of governments censoring the internet access of their citizens. Jigsaw, which is a unit within Google that conducts research on internet shutdowns, has made the following observation:
“While data prior to 2016 is patchy, and the true total number of internet shutdowns is likely unknowable, nearly 850 intentional shutdowns have been documented and verified over the last decade via Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP). Of these, 768 shutdowns across 63 countries have taken place just in the last five years.”
Some other more specific examples of internet shutdowns:
Egypt: In 2011, as a result of anti-government protests, the Egyptian government effectively shut the internet off for its citizens. For five days, 93% of Egyptian networks remained completely unreachable.
Sudan: In the summer of 2019, after a government attack on protestors which led to the death of nearly 100 people, the Sudanese government employed a partial and then full internet shutdown. The shutdown lasted for about five weeks.
Myanmar: As a result of violence between the military and the Arakan army, the internet has been cut off for the majority of the country since June 19, 2019. Myanmar has the world’s longest internet outage to date.
Even the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been mentioning a “cyber-attack with covid-like characteristics,” in which there is some sort of blackout event where all devices would have to be fully disconnected from the internet.
The WEF also recently conducted “Cyber Polygon,” which was a training exercise that simulated a horrible event like this. The exercise involved executives from large multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and officials from various governments.
The reality is that the internet can and has been intentionally shut off in the past. But does this mean that Bitcoin itself can be shut off? Absolutely not.
Bitcoin: Apocalypse-Resistant Money
Let’s paint a picture of what an apocalyptic scenario would look like. If this were to happen, we would hypothetically lose: internet, power, food supply, water supply, gasoline and public transportation.
What’s truly amazing is the fact that Bitcoin can still be used in this situation. Not only can you still send bitcoin through a variety of different methods, but you can also run a node and theoretically even mine bitcoin as well (although that would be somewhat of a stretch, but it technically could be done).
The point is, even if the internet and power go out, you can still use Bitcoin. It may not necessarily be easy, but nonetheless, it is still possible.
How does Bitcoin compare to other forms of money during an apocalypse?
Gold has long been perceived as a good thing to have if an apocalypse were to happen. It has historically been considered as something you should hold when the world is ending. But is this really the case?
If you think about it, gold is actually a major liability to hold when massive amounts of people near you are desperate. Gold is even more of a liability to transport and send under this circumstance as well. It is heavy, difficult to hide and difficult to safely move. For this very reason, countless families have lost all their gold, their life savings, when escaping totalitarian regimes as refugees.
Aside from gold, you certainly wouldn’t be able to use your bank. Need to transfer fiat currency? Impossible, other than through the use of cash, but even that has physical limitations. The physical nature of cash makes it a liability in this sense, just as it does with gold.
Not only are both gold and fiat currency subpar options for an apocalypse, but so are all other sectors of investment such as real estate, stocks, bonds, and fine art or wine. To clarify, property itself can, of course, be a lifesaver to have in an apocalypse. You can store all your resources and have a food supply on your property. That being said, there’s a difference between your own property and rental property; in this case, having your own property for personal use would be an advantage, while having rental property would be a nightmare.
Back to the point, the advantage of Bitcoin is that it is NOT physical in nature and it does NOT require trust in a third party to use. Therefore, it is easy to hide, transfer and prevent confiscation or theft. This is a major difference between Bitcoin and any of the other investments or stores of value mentioned. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
Altcoins cannot be used during an apocalypse because they are not sufficiently decentralized. They are not even remotely close to Bitcoin in terms of decentralization and network strength. Let’s get into some of these details now.
Why Is Bitcoin Apocalypse-resistant Money?
As previously stated, Bitcoin is the most robust network on Earth, and ironically, above Earth as well (thanks to Blockstream satellites). But how is it that Bitcoin is so robust?
Bitcoin is decentralized. Sure, your nation-state could temporarily shut off the internet, but they can’t shut off Bitcoin itself because someone, somewhere on Earth, will still be mining and running a node, therefore, keeping the network alive. A prevalent example of how Bitcoin is decentralized is the large number of nodes that it has, which are distributed across many different parts of the earth, all enforcing the rules of the network, keeping a copy of the Bitcoin blockchain and auditing its supply.
In order to kill Bitcoin, you would have to independently go to each node in every country, in every home, and destroy every single one that exists. Given how many there are, this is simply not possible. Here’s a map found on bitnodes.io which shows worldwide node distribution. This is also one of the most conservative estimates of how many nodes are currently running.
Bitcoin is permissionless. Bank accounts can be censored. Aside from this and as mentioned previously, bank accounts would be out of service during an apocalypse. You need permission from your bank every time you send money to someone. Bitcoin does not require permission to be sent and is, therefore, an ideal form of money to have during an apocalypse for this reason.
Bitcoin is secure. Relating to the previous topic about the WEF’s recent attention toward cyberattacks, Bitcoin itself is unhackable. SHA-256, which is its hashing algorithm, is inconceivably secure. The amount of possible hashes are two to the 256th power, so, two multiplied by itself 256 times. The odds of getting the same hash as someone else and having this kind of manipulation in the network are less than one in 115 quattuorvigintillion — this is more than the number of atoms in the known universe!
Bitcoin can be sent offline. Bitcoin is data, and data can be sent through many different forms of communication such as mesh networks, SMS, ham radio, sneakernet, satellites, etc. We’ll look at each of these options shortly.
You Can Run A Node Without Using The Internet
The large, distributed amount of nodes that the Bitcoin network has makes it apocalypse-resistant money. Even more impressive, your entire area’s internet could go out and you could still run a node using satellites.
The Blockstream Satellite network makes this possible by broadcasting the Bitcoin blockchain over Earth 24/7 for free.
Blockstream engineer, Grubles, wrote a detailed article on how you can build your own satellite node and receive data coming from the Bitcoin blockchain. Note the picture from his article with a TV dish; you could use your own TV dish to run a node, completely without the internet!
Dogecoin, SushiSwap, Ethereum, etc., no altcoins have satellites flying above Earth in order to strengthen their networks. Bitcoin does. Characteristics like this are what separate Bitcoin from everything else; it is serious money for serious people who are determined to keep the network alive. Are you starting to get the full picture here?
How Can Bitcoin Be Sent Without The Internet?
However data can be sent, bitcoin can be sent as well. The internet is simply one way of transferring data but certainly not the only way.
Even if an apocalypse doesn’t happen, there are still valid use cases for offline Bitcoin transactions to take place. Surprisingly, roughly 40% of the world’s population still remains offline. There is a real-world necessity for transacting offline when you start thinking about people who live in remote areas with little or no internet access. The fact that hyperinflation is common in these same regions underscores the importance of bitcoin.
We’ll explore the following methods of offline transactions: mesh networks, Iridium RockBLOCK, SMS, ham radio, sneakernet.
Offline Transactions: Mesh Networks
What are mesh networks?
As defined by Jigsaw, mesh networks work by bypassing telecommunications infrastructure, tapping straight into radio frequencies that pass data to nearby devices. From there, the data travels — hop by hop — until it can reach its destination or an open network, allowing impacted regions to reach the world. Note the simple image above of what a mesh network looks like.
Specifically with Bitcoin, goTenna offers a mesh networking device that can broadcast transactions to a local goTenna mesh network. The company partnered with Blockstream and offers software for this as well, called TxTenna. The goTenna device has a maximum range of 6.4 km and can have several different relay points in order to lengthen the distance of the offline transaction being made.
Grubles has written an excellent article on this topic. He states, “With this hardware setup, anyone can send and receive bitcoin without an internet connection. It’s resistant to network outages and can also maintain uptime through power outages since all of the hardware is run off batteries. The hardware can of course be run off of gasoline generators or solar panels if the power outage is longer lasting.”
For a quick visual on what it looks like to send bitcoin through a goTenna, click here.
Above is an interesting tweet from CoinsureNZ about how he sent a Bitcoin transaction through goTenna.
With this option, you could have a small community or even an entire city that has many different goTenna devices which are geographically distributed in the area. That way if there was ever an internet outage, using Bitcoin would still be possible.
It is worth noting that in order to broadcast a transaction to the greater network, goTenna does still need the endpoint of the mesh network to eventually reach the internet. That being said, even a cell tower in a neighboring city could serve as an endpoint for this, as long as there are relay points in between the offline area and the cell tower.
Blockstream provides an article with another good visual representation of goTenna being used to send bitcoin. Note that on the right side of the image, only one user at an endpoint needs internet access. The rest of the entire community of users does not need internet.
Offline Transactions: Iridium RockBLOCK
Currently, the Blockstream Satellite network solely offers a downlink connection, meaning that you can’t send data back up to the satellite, you can only receive data beaming down from the satellite.
However, the Iridium network does allow for an uplink connection. It’s also the largest satellite network, having global coverage and 66 satellites orbiting Earth.
Probably one of the most mobile and agile options for making an offline Bitcoin transaction is by using an Iridium RockBLOCK device.
Founding team member at Casa, Nick Fogle, demonstrated this as shown on the tweet above.
This is an astounding concept if you think about it. Apocalypse or not, if people are in a horrible situation — having the power grid and internet service go down — and if they need to send money to a loved one during a disaster, they can do this with Bitcoin.
Circling back to the debate of gold versus Bitcoin during an apocalypse, a transaction like this is obviously not possible to do with gold. Bitcoin is by far the most easily transportable form of money since it doesn’t have physical limitations. As such, it is rendering gold obsolete as a form of money.
For a more in-depth look at how this process actually functions, Fogle wrote an interesting article which provides a written visual (above) of the entire journey the data goes on when being sent from the RockBLOCK.
The Bitcoin transaction is sent from the RockBLOCK to the satellite, then back to a ground station, then to the internet, then to the Bitcoin network.
Humans sending money through satellites to other humans on a completely different part of the Earth — one could say that we really do live in the future.
Offline Transactions: SMS
If the internet were to be blocked by your government or somehow made unavailable, another option in this case is sending bitcoin through SMS.
There are different methods of doing so, but one example of how this is possible is through a system which Pavol Rusnak created, where you can send a Bitcoin transaction via SMS and have it broadcasted to the greater internet and Bitcoin network.
Above is a screenshot of an SMS Bitcoin transaction from the article Rusnak wrote about this. You can send a transaction to the phone number listed at the top of the picture, and the data will be transferred to the greater network.
Again, Bitcoin is simply data, and data can be sent through many different forms of communication.
Offline Transactions: Amateur Radio
Nick Szabo initially presented on this topic at Stanford’s Scaling Bitcoin Conference in 2017. He brought forth a research project with Elaine Ou that explored how bitcoin could be sent using weak signal radio propagation. The concept is quite mind-blowing; sending bitcoin through certain frequencies in the air, literally bouncing them off the sky (the ionosphere) and back to different locations of the Earth.
Unfortunately, ham radio licenses are legally required in order to send data through this means of communication (no license required to receive data through ham radio). That being said, this barrier might not be as relevant in the event of an emergency situation.
Rodolfo Novak, founder of Coinkite, has also demonstrated some proof-of-concept examples for Bitcoin transactions sent over radio. As you can tell from his tweet shown above, he was able to send a Lightning invoice from Toronto, Ontario, to San Francisco, California.
With amateur radio, whoever is sending the bitcoin could be in the middle of nowhere without the internet. The key is, the bitcoin must be sent to a destination that does have access to the internet, so it can be broadcasted to the greater network in order to be confirmed.
Offline Transactions: Sneakernet
Sneakernet is commonly defined as “the transfer of data and electronic files between computers through removable media (like hard drives, flash drives and optical disks), which are physically transported between computers and on foot.”
The term “sneakernet,” of course, refers to sneakers worn by the person carrying information between computers.
This opens up many James Bond–style possibilities for censorship-resistance. As previously stated, a Bitcoin transaction is simply data. This data can be sent in multiple different ways and can be creatively passed from user to user, such as through the sneakernet option.
You could print a QR code of a raw transaction on a piece of paper, discreetly carry it with you over a long distance, then broadcast the transaction to the Bitcoin network once you’re in a safe place that has internet service. A Bitcoin “transaction” doesn’t even mean using a computer in this case. With sneakernet, a Bitcoin “transaction” could mean handing a piece of paper to someone else.
Closing Thoughts: The Future Of Bitcoin Citadels
The reality is, right now, it’s not necessarily convenient for the average person to send an offline Bitcoin transaction through radio, satellites, etc. This must be acknowledged.
However, Bitcoin has not even been alive for 20 years and people are already exploring options to transact with each other — across borders, across the world — through radio, satellites, text messages, goTenna and even sneakers. These are remarkable accomplishments and endeavors in such a short amount of time. Imagine how apocalypse-resistant Bitcoin will be 50 years from now!
If an apocalypse were to happen though, it’s likely that you wouldn’t be worried about Bitcoin, but instead you would be worried about supply chains coming to a halt, your family’s safety and your means of survival.
This is one of the many appealing factors of Bitcoin citadels. Human beings need resources in order to thrive. Through restoration of saving, Bitcoin enables people to own resources, while fiat makes it impossible.
Playing around with the idea, imagine a citadel that utilizes solar or hydroelectric power from a nearby river as a failsafe in case the grid goes down. These off-grid energy systems can be used to power goTenna devices, ham radios, cell phones, Iridium RockBLOCKs, satellite phones, etc., devices that can be used to send bitcoin if the grid went down. You could even mine bitcoin using this hydroelectric power that our imaginary citadel has.
There could also be a multitude of satellite TV dishes that are distributed throughout this citadel — all of them updating their nodes, receiving data from the sky above — none of them needing an internet connection or using power from the grid.
Bitcoin citadels will ultimately prevent an apocalypse from happening in the first place, that is — if you happen to be in one of them. As Hal Finney said, “The computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect people, rather than to control them.”
We will not “own nothing and be happy,” as the WEF has been recently preaching. We will own bitcoin and be happy.
This is a guest post by Andrew Howard. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.