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MadMax: Analyzing the Out-of-Gas World of Smart Contracts

By Neville Grech, Michael Kong, Anton Jurisevic, Lexi Brent, Bernhard Scholz, Yannis Smaragdakis

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 63 No. 10, Pages 87-95

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Ethereum is a distributed blockchain platform, serving as an ecosystem for smart contracts: full-fledged intercommunicating programs that capture the transaction logic of an account. A gas limit caps the execution of an Ethereum smart contract: instructions, when executed, consume gas, and the execution proceeds as long as gas is available.

Gas-focused vulnerabilities permit an attacker to force key contract functionality to run out of gas—effectively performing a permanent denial-of-service attack on the contract. Such vulnerabilities are among the hardest for programmers to protect against, as out-of-gas behavior may be uncommon in nonattack scenarios and reasoning about these vulnerabilities is nontrivial.

In this paper, we identify gas-focused vulnerabilities and present MadMax: a static program analysis technique that automatically detects gas-focused vulnerabilities with very high confidence. MadMax combines a smart contract decompiler and semantic queries in Datalog. Our approach captures high-level program modeling concepts (such as "dynamic data structure storage" and "safely resumable loops") and delivers high precision and scalability. MadMax analyzes the entirety of smart contracts in the Ethereum blockchain in just 10 hours and flags vulnerabilities in contracts with a monetary value in billions of dollars. Manual inspection of a sample of flagged contracts shows that 81% of the sampled warnings do indeed lead to vulnerabilities.

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1. Introduction

Ethereum is a decentralized blockchain platform that can execute arbitrarily-expressive computational smart contracts. A smart contract can capture virtually any complex interaction, such as responding to communication from other accounts and dispensing or accepting funds. The possibilities for such programmable logic are endless. It may encode a payoff schedule, investment assumptions, interest policy, conditional trading directives, trade or payment agreements, and complex pricing. Virtually any transactional multiparty interaction is expressible without a need for intermediaries or third-party trust.

Smart contracts typically handle transactions in Ether, which is the native cryptocurrency of the Ethereum blockchain with a current market capitalization in tens of billions of dollars. Smart contracts (as opposed to noncomputational "wallets") hold a considerable portion of the total Ether available in circulation, which makes them ripe targets for attackers. Hence, developers and auditors have a strong incentive to make extensive use of various tools and programming techniques that minimize the risk of their contract being attacked.


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