Michelson Anti-Patterns

Even though Michelson is designed to make it easy to write secure contracts and difficult to write vulnerable ones, it is still possible to write buggy contracts that leak data and funds. This is a list of mistakes that you can make when writing or interacting with contracts on the Tezos blockchain and alternative ways to write code that avoid these problems.

Note: We are currently reworking the concurrency model of Michelson (how and when sub-transactions are made), so that some of these patterns will be prevented by the language itself.

Refunding to a list of contracts

One common pattern in contracts is to refund a group of people’s funds at once. This is problematic if you accepted arbitrary contracts as a malicious user can do cause various issues for you.

Possible issues:

  • One contract swallows all the gas through a series of callbacks
  • One contract writes transactions until the block is full
  • Reentrancy bugs. Michelson intentionally makes these difficult to write, but it is still possible if you try.
  • A contract calls the `FAIL` instruction, stopping all computation.

Alternatives/Solutions:

  • Create a default account from people’s keys. Default accounts cannot execute code, avoiding the bugs above. Have people submit keys rather than contracts.
  • Have people pull their funds individually. Each user can break their own withdrawal only. This does not protect against reentrancy bugs.

Avoid batch operations when users can increase the size of the batch

Contracts that rely on linear or super-linear operations are vulnerable to malicious users supplying values until the contract cannot finish without running into fuel limits. This can deadlock your contract.

Possible issues:

  • Malicious users can force your contract into a pathological worst case, stopping it from finishing with available gas. Note that in the absence of hard gas limits, this can still be disabling as node operators may not want to run contracts that take more than a certain amount of gas.
  • You may hit the slow case of an amortized algorithm or data structure at an inopportune time, using up all of your contract’s available gas.

Alternatives/Solutions:

  • Avoid data structures and algorithms that rely on amortized operations, especially when users may add data.
  • Restrict the amount of data your contract can store to a level that will not overwhelm the available gas.
  • Write your contract so that it may pause and resume batch operations. This would complicate these sequences and require constant checking of available gas, but it prevents various attacks.

*Do not assume an attack will be prohibitively expensive* Cryptocurrencies have extreme price fluctuations frequently and an extremely motivated attacker may decide that an enormous expense is justified. Remember, an attack that disables a contract is not just targeted at the authors, but also the users of that contract.

Signatures alone do not prevent replay attacks

If your contract uses signatures to authenticate messages, beware of replay attacks. If a user ever signs a piece of data, you must make sure that that piece of data is never again a valid message to the contract. If you do not do this, anyone else can call your contract with the same input and piggyback on the earlier approval.

Possible issues:

  • A previously approved action can be replayed.

Alternatives/Solutions

  • Use an internal counter to make the data you ask users to sign unique. This counter should be per key so that users can find out what they need to approve. This should be paired with a signed hash of your contract to prevent cross-contract replays.
  • Use the SENDER instruction to verify that the expected sender is the source of the message.

Do not assume users will use a unique key for every smart contract

Users should always use a different key for every contract with which they interact. If this is not the case, a message the user signed for another contract can be sent to your contract. An internal counter alone does not protect against this attack. It must be paired with a hash of your contract. You must verify the source of the message.

Storing/transferring private data

Once data is published to anyone, including broadcasting a transaction, that data is public. Never transmit secret information via any part of the blockchain ecosystem. As soon as you have broadcast a transaction including that piece of information, anyone can see it. Furthermore, malicious nodes in the system can manipulate unsigned transactions by delaying, modifying, or reordering them.

Possible Issues

  • If data is not signed, it can be modified
  • Transactions can be delayed
  • Secret information will become public

Alternatives/Solutions

  • Do not store private information on the blockchain or broadcast it in transactions.
  • Sign all transactions that contain information that, if manipulated, could be abused.
  • Use counters to enforce transaction orders.

This will at least create a logical clock on messages sent to your contract.

Not setting all state before a transfer

Reentrancy is a potential issue on the blockchain. When a contract makes a transfer to another contract, that contract can execute its own code, and can make arbitrary further transfers, including back to the original contract. If state has not been updated before the transfer is made, a contract can call back in and execute actions based on old state.

Possible Issues

  • Multiple withdrawals/actions
  • Generating illegal state if state is updated twice later

Alternatives/Solutions

  • Forbid reentrancy by means of a flag in your storage, unless you have a good reason to allow users to reenter your contract, this is likely the best option.
  • Only make transfers to trusted contracts or default accounts. Default accounts cannot execute code, so it is always safe to transfer to them. Before trusting a contract, make sure that its behavior cannot be modified and that you have an extremely high degree of confidence in it.

Do not store funds for others in spendable contracts

Tezos allows contracts to be marked as spendable. Managers of spendable contracts can make transfers using the funds stored inside the contract. This can subvert guarantees about the contract’s behavior that are visible in the code.

Possible Issues

  • The funds of a contract can be removed.
  • A contract may not be able to meet its obligations

Alternatives/Solutions

  • Do not store funds in spendable contracts that you do not control.