As the complexity of online autonomous agents advances, it will become progressively more difficult to restrict their access to resources. It will be essential to establish a privacy-conscious method for finely tuning the interaction rates between entities and smart contracts. This approach is crucial to prevent a limited group of advanced actors from exploiting the systems.
Rate limiting is a crucial technique employed to control the frequency of user requests to a resource over a specified period. This technique is indispensable in most web-based systems as a safeguard against Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, where a single entity could monopolize all server resources. The cornerstone of any rate limiting system is the ability to generate a rate limit “key” – a unique identifier for the entity making the requests. In the context of Web 2.0 systems, this could be a user’s IP address or an account ID that is unique per email, phone number etc. However, these strategies are not impervious to a “Sybil” attack, where a single entity manipulates multiple rate limit keys (such as IPs or accounts), making it challenging for the web service to discern that the requests originate from the same entity.
Similarly, Ethereum and other censorship-resistant, public smart contract platforms face a comparable issue. Consider a smart contract, like a Non-Fungible Token (NFT), which might need a mechanism to prevent a single user from minting all the NFTs. Currently, this is a complex problem because there’s no reliable method to determine if transactions from multiple accounts are indeed from separate entities. In other words, there’s no clear correlation between an account (public key) and an individual human user.
Introducing a privacy-preserving flexible rate limiting library: n-per-epoch
Check out the open source implementation of this simple contract modifier here. This modifier enables contract creators to set limits on the number of times a specific user can call a function within a defined epoch. The epoch duration is highly flexible, allowing developers to set it to near infinity (1 per forever) or to a very short duration for higher throughput.
It is critical that the key we use for rate limiting on chain is privacy-preserving by default. The status quo on blockchain is that a user’s history across applications is completely transparent.
You will notice that these contracts do not care at all about msg.sender. This is by design! Under the hood, this takes advantage of zero-knowledge proof of inclusion through the usage of the semaphore library. The contract enforces auth via the provided zk proof instead of relying on the signer of the transaction. ERC4337 style account abstraction could trivially leverage this type of authentication to completely anonymize on-chain actions.
Theoretically, any semaphore group could be used as the anonymity set behind this rate limiting. This example uses a group that is already quite large and has some unique properties, such as a guarantee that each entry in the set is a human.
This example leverages an existing “anonymity set” developed by Worldcoin, comprising approximately 1.8 million verified human users. Worldcoin established this set by scanning individuals’ irises and ensuring that each iris had not been previously added to the set. To utilize a different set, simply modify the groupId within the settings. Learn more about the World ID and the Worldcoin project here.
Why is rate limiting useful?
- Prevent abuse: By limiting the number of requests per user, it helps to prevent abuse of services or resources by malicious actors or bots. This ensures that genuine users have fair access to the system without being crowded out by automated scripts or attacks.
- Encourage fair distribution: In scenarios where resources, rewards, or opportunities are limited, rate limiting human users ensures a more equitable distribution. This can help prevent a few users from monopolizing access to valuable assets or services, such as NFT drops or token faucets.
- Enhance user experience: When resources are constrained, rate limiting human users can help maintain a smooth and responsive experience for legitimate users. By preventing system overload or resource depletion, it ensures that users can continue to interact with the application without disruption.
- Manage costs: In blockchain applications, rate limiting human users can help manage costs associated with gas fees or other operational expenses. By controlling the frequency of transactions or function calls, service providers can optimize their expenses while still offering a valuable service to users.
- Preserve privacy: By focusing on human users and leveraging privacy-preserving techniques, rate limiting can be implemented without compromising user privacy. This is particularly important in decentralized systems, where trust in the system is often built on the foundation of user privacy and data security.
Gas-sponsoring relays: These relays aim to provide gas for human users of their applications while preventing resource depletion by a single user. This library effectively enables protocols to manage resource allocation for individual users.
Faucets: Distribute assets to human users at a controlled pace, preventing abuse.
Rewarding user interactions on social networks: Rate limiting helps limit the impact of spamming while still encouraging genuine engagement.
Fair allocation of scarce resources (e.g., NFT drops): By implementing rate limiting, each human user could be allowed to mint a specific amount (e.g., one per hour), promoting equitable distribution.
As the sophistication of autonomous agents online increases, limiting access to resources will become increasingly challenging. A privacy-preserving way to have fine-grain control over the rates at which entities can interact with smart contracts will be critical if we are to prevent a small set of sophisticated actors from abusing the systems.
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