Consensus and validation bugs

Consensus and validation bugs can arise both from inside the Bitcoin Core codebase itself, and from external dependencies. Bitcoin wiki lists some CVE and other Exposures.

OpenSSL consensus failure

Pieter Wuille disclosed the possibility of a consensus failure via usage of OpenSSL. The issue was that the OpenSSL signature verification was accepting multiple signature serialization formats (for the same signature) as valid. This effectively meant that a transactions' ID (txid) could be changed, because the signature contributes to the txid hash.

Click to show the code comments related to pubkey signature parsing from pubkey.cpp
/** This function is taken from the libsecp256k1 distribution and implements
 *  DER parsing for ECDSA signatures, while supporting an arbitrary subset of
 *  format violations.
 *  Supported violations include negative integers, excessive padding, garbage
 *  at the end, and overly long length descriptors. This is safe to use in
 *  Bitcoin because since the activation of BIP66, signatures are verified to be
 *  strict DER before being passed to this module, and we know it supports all
 *  violations present in the blockchain before that point.
int ecdsa_signature_parse_der_lax(const secp256k1_context* ctx, secp256k1_ecdsa_signature* sig, const unsigned char *input, size_t inputlen) {
    // ...

There were a few cases to consider:

  1. signature length descriptor malleation (extension to 5 bytes)

  2. third party malleation: signature may be slightly "tweaked" or padded

  3. third party malleation: negating the S value of the signature

In the length descriptor case there is a higher risk of causing a consensus-related chainsplit. The sender can create a normal-length valid signature, but which uses a 5 byte length descriptor meaning that it might not be accepted by OpenSSL on all platforms.

Note that the sender can also "malleate" the signature whenever they like, by simply creating a new one, but this will be handled differently than a length-descriptor-extended signature.

In the second case, signature tweaking or padding, there is a lesser risk of causing a consensus-related chainsplit. However the ability of third parties to tamper with valid transactions may open up off-chain attacks related to Bitcoin services or layers (e.g. Lightning) in the event that they are relying on txids to track transactions.

It is interesting to consider the order of the steps taken to fix this potential vulnerability:

  1. First the default policy in Bitcoin Core was altered (via isStandard()) to prevent the software from relaying or accepting into the mempool transactions with non-DER signature encodings.
    This was carried out in PR#2520.

  2. Following the policy change, the strict encoding rules were later enforced by consensus in PR#5713.

We can see the resulting flag in the script verification enum:

// Passing a non-strict-DER signature or one with undefined hashtype to a checksig operation causes script failure.
// Evaluating a pubkey that is not (0x04 + 64 bytes) or (0x02 or 0x03 + 32 bytes) by checksig causes script failure.
// (not used or intended as a consensus rule).
Expand to see where this flag is checked in src/script/interpreter.cpp
bool CheckSignatureEncoding(const std::vector<unsigned char> &vchSig, unsigned int flags, ScriptError* serror) {
    // Empty signature. Not strictly DER encoded, but allowed to provide a
    // compact way to provide an invalid signature for use with CHECK(MULTI)SIG
    if (vchSig.size() == 0) {
        return true;
    if ((flags & (SCRIPT_VERIFY_DERSIG | SCRIPT_VERIFY_LOW_S | SCRIPT_VERIFY_STRICTENC)) != 0 && !IsValidSignatureEncoding(vchSig)) {
        return set_error(serror, SCRIPT_ERR_SIG_DER);
    } else if ((flags & SCRIPT_VERIFY_LOW_S) != 0 && !IsLowDERSignature(vchSig, serror)) {
        // serror is set
        return false;
    } else if ((flags & SCRIPT_VERIFY_STRICTENC) != 0 && !IsDefinedHashtypeSignature(vchSig)) {
        return set_error(serror, SCRIPT_ERR_SIG_HASHTYPE);
    return true;

bool static CheckPubKeyEncoding(const valtype &vchPubKey, unsigned int flags, const SigVersion &sigversion, ScriptError* serror) {
    if ((flags & SCRIPT_VERIFY_STRICTENC) != 0 && !IsCompressedOrUncompressedPubKey(vchPubKey)) {
        return set_error(serror, SCRIPT_ERR_PUBKEYTYPE);
    // Only compressed keys are accepted in segwit
    if ((flags & SCRIPT_VERIFY_WITNESS_PUBKEYTYPE) != 0 && sigversion == SigVersion::WITNESS_V0 && !IsCompressedPubKey(vchPubKey)) {
        return set_error(serror, SCRIPT_ERR_WITNESS_PUBKEYTYPE);
    return true;

Do you think this approach — first altering policy, followed later by consensus — made sense for implementing the changes needed to fix this consensus vulnerability? Are there circumstances where it might not make sense?

Having OpenSSL as a consensus-critical dependency to the project was ultimately fixed in PR#6954 which switched to using the in-house libsecp256k1 library (as a subtree) for signature verification.

Database consensus

Historically Bitcoin Core used Berkeley DB (BDB) for transaction and block indices. In 2013 a migration to LevelDB for these indices was included with Bitcoin Core v0.8. What developers at the time could not foresee was that nodes that were still using BDB, all pre 0.8 nodes, were silently consensus-bound by a relatively obscure BDB-specific database lock counter.

BDB required a configuration setting for the total number of locks available to the database.

Bitcoin Core was interpreting a failure to grab the required number of locks as equivalent to block validation failing. This caused some BDB-using nodes to mark blocks created by LevelDB-using nodes as invalid and caused a consensus-level chain split. BIP 50 provides further explanation on this incident.

Although database code is not in close proximity to the /src/consensus region of the codebase it was still able to induce a consensus bug.

BDB has caused other potentially-dangerous behaviour in the past. Developer Greg Maxwell describes in a Q&A how even the same versions of BDB running on the same system exhibited non-deterministic behaviour which might have been able to initiate chain re-orgs.

An inflation bug

This Bitcoin Core disclosure details a potential inflation bug.

It originated from trying to speed up transaction validation in main.cpp#CheckTransaction() which is now consensus/tx_check.cpp#CheckTransaction(), something which would in theory help speed up IBD (and less noticeably singular/block transaction validation). The result in Bitcoin Core versions 0.15.x → 0.16.2 was that a coin that was created in a previous block, could be spent twice in the same block by a miner, without the block being rejected by other Bitcoin Core nodes (of the aforementioned versions).

Whilst this bug originates from validation, it can certainly be described as a breach of consensus parameters. In addition, nodes of version 0.14.x ⇐ node_version >= 0.16.3 would reject inflation blocks, ultimately resulting in a chain split provided that miners existed using both inflation-resistant and inflation-permitting clients.

Hard & Soft Forks

Before continuing with this section, ensure that you have a good understanding of what soft and hard forks are, and how they differ. Some good resources to read up on this further are found in the table below.

Table 1. Hard and soft fork resources
Title Resource Link

What is a soft fork, what is a hard fork, what are their differences?



Soft forks


Hard forks


Soft fork activation

Bitcoin Optech


List of consensus forks

BitMex research


A taxonomy of forks (BIP99)



Modern Soft Fork Activation

bitcoin-dev mailing list


Chain splits and Resolutions

BitcoinMagazine guest


When making changes to Bitcoin Core its important to consider whether they could have any impact on the consensus rules, or the interpretation of those rules. If they do, then the changes will end up being either a soft or hard fork, depending on the nature of the rule change.

As described, certain Bitcoin Core components, such as the block database can also unwittingly introduce forking behaviour, even though they do not directly modify consensus rules.

Some of the components which are known to alter consensus behaviour, and should therefore be approached with caution, are listed in the section consensus components.

Changes are not made to consensus values or computations without extreme levels of review and necessity. In contrast, changes such as refactoring can be (and are) made to areas of consensus code, when we can be sure that they will not alter consensus validation.