SVP Nodes

This section dives into what Bitcoin calls SPV nodes and how they transmit data. Read this section to understand what data is most vital, as well as the trade-offs between security and convenience when it comes to Bitcoin blockchain data.

Not all nodes have the ability to store the full blockchain. Many bitcoin clients are designed to run on space- and power-constrained devices, such as smartphones, tablets, or embedded systems. For such devices, a simplified payment verification (SPV) method is used to allow them to operate without storing the full blockchain. These types of clients are called SPV clients or lightweight clients. As bitcoin adoption surges, the SPV node is becoming the most common form of bitcoin node, especially for bitcoin wallets.

SPV nodes download only the block headers and do not download the transactions included in each block. The resulting chain of blocks, without transactions, is 1,000 times smaller than the full blockchain. SPV nodes cannot construct a full picture of all the UTXOs that are available for spending because they do not know about all the transactions on the network. SPV nodes verify transactions using a slightly different method that relies on peers to provide partial views of relevant parts of the blockchain on demand.

As an analogy, a full node is like a tourist in a strange city, equipped with a detailed map of every street and every address. By comparison, an SPV node is like a tourist in a strange city asking random strangers for turn-by-turn directions while knowing only one main avenue. Although both tourists can verify the existence of a street by visiting it, the tourist without a map doesn't know what lies down any of the side streets and doesn't know what other streets exist. Positioned in front of 23 Church Street, the tourist without a map cannot know if there are a dozen other "23 Church Street" addresses in the city and whether this is the right one. The mapless tourist's best chance is to ask enough people and hope some of them are not trying to mug him.

SPV verifies transactions by reference to their depth in the blockchain instead of their height. Whereas a full blockchain node will construct a fully verified chain of thousands of blocks and transactions reaching down the blockchain (back in time) all the way to the genesis block, an SPV node will verify the chain of all blocks (but not all transactions) and link that chain to the transaction of interest.

For example, when examining a transaction in block 300,000, a full node links all 300,000 blocks down to the genesis block and builds a full database of UTXO, establishing the validity of the transaction by confirming that the UTXO remains unspent. An SPV node cannot validate whether the UTXO is unspent. Instead, the SPV node will establish a link between the transaction and the block that contains it, using a merkle path. Then, the SPV node waits until it sees the six blocks 300,001 through 300,006 piled on top of the block containing the transaction and verifies it by establishing its depth under blocks 300,006 to 300,001. The fact that other nodes on the network accepted block 300,000 and then did the necessary work to produce six more blocks on top of it is proof, by proxy, that the transaction was not a double-spend.

An SPV node cannot be persuaded that a transaction exists in a block when the transaction does not in fact exist. The SPV node establishes the existence of a transaction in a block by requesting a merkle path proof and by validating the Proof-of-Work in the chain of blocks. However, a transaction's existence can be "hidden" from an SPV node. An SPV node can definitely prove that a transaction exists but cannot verify that a transaction, such as a double-spend of the same UTXO, doesn't exist because it doesn't have a record of all transactions. This vulnerability can be used in a denial-of-service attack or for a double-spending attack against SPV nodes. To defend against this, an SPV node needs to connect randomly to several nodes, to increase the probability that it is in contact with at least one honest node. This need to randomly connect means that SPV nodes also are vulnerable to network partitioning attacks or Sybil attacks, where they are connected to fake nodes or fake networks and do not have access to honest nodes or the real bitcoin network.

For most practical purposes, well-connected SPV nodes are secure enough, striking a balance between resource needs, practicality, and security. For infallible security, however, nothing beats running a full blockchain node.

Tip: A full blockchain node verifies a transaction by checking the entire chain of thousands of blocks below it in order to guarantee that the UTXO is not spent, whereas an SPV node checks how deep the block is buried by a handful of blocks above it.

To get the block headers, SPV nodes use a getheaders message instead of getblocks. The responding peer will send up to 2,000 block headers using a single headers message. The process is otherwise the same as that used by a full node to retrieve full blocks. SPV nodes also set a filter on the connection to peers, to filter the stream of future blocks and transactions sent by the peers. Any transactions of interest are retrieved using a getdata request. The peer generates a tx message containing the transactions, in response. SPV node synchronizing the block headers shows the synchronization of block headers.

Because SPV nodes need to retrieve specific transactions in order to selectively verify them, they also create a privacy risk. Unlike full blockchain nodes, which collect all transactions within each block, the SPV node's requests for specific data can inadvertently reveal the addresses in their wallet. For example, a third party monitoring a network could keep track of all the transactions requested by a wallet on an SPV node and use those to associate bitcoin addresses with the user of that wallet, destroying the user's privacy.

Figure 7. SPV node synchronizing the block headers

Shortly after the introduction of SPV/lightweight nodes, bitcoin developers added a feature called bloom filters to address the privacy risks of SPV nodes. Bloom filters allow SPV nodes to receive a subset of the transactions without revealing precisely which addresses they are interested in, through a filtering mechanism that uses probabilities rather than fixed patterns.


Bloom Filters

A bloom filter is a probabilistic search filter that offers an efficient way to express a search pattern while protecting privacy. They are used by SPV nodes to ask their peers for transactions matching a specific pattern, without revealing exactly which addresses, keys, or transactions they are searching for.

In our previous analogy, a tourist without a map is asking for directions to a specific address, "23 Church St". If she asks strangers for directions to this street, she inadvertently reveals her destination. A bloom filter is like asking, "Are there any streets in this neighborhood whose name ends in R-C-H?" A question like that reveals slightly less about the desired destination than asking for "23 Church St". Using this technique, a tourist could specify the desired address in more detail such as "ending in U-R-C-H" or less detail as "ending in H". By varying the precision of the search, the tourist reveals more or less information, at the expense of getting more or less specific results. If she asks a less specific pattern, she gets a lot more possible addresses and better privacy, but many of the results are irrelevant. If she asks for a very specific pattern, she gets fewer results but loses privacy.

Bloom filters serve this function by allowing an SPV node to specify a search pattern for transactions that can be tuned toward precision or privacy. A more specific bloom filter will produce accurate results, but at the expense of revealing what patterns the SPV node is interested in, thus revealing the addresses owned by the user's wallet. A less specific bloom filter will produce more data about more transactions, many irrelevant to the node, but will allow the node to maintain better privacy.


How Bloom Filters Work

Bloom filters are implemented as a variable-size array of N binary digits (a bit field) and a variable number of M hash functions. The hash functions are designed to always produce an output that is between 1 and N, corresponding to the array of binary digits. The hash functions are generated deterministically, so that any node implementing a bloom filter will always use the same hash functions and get the same results for a specific input. By choosing different length (N) bloom filters and a different number (M) of hash functions, the bloom filter can be tuned, varying the level of accuracy and therefore privacy.

In An example of a simplistic bloom filter, with a 16-bit field and three hash functions, we use a very small array of 16 bits and a set of three hash functions to demonstrate how bloom filters work.

Figure 8. An example of a simplistic bloom filter, with a 16-bit field and three hash functions


The bloom filter is initialized so that the array of bits is all zeros. To add a pattern to the bloom filter, the pattern is hashed by each hash function in turn. Applying the first hash function to the input results in a number between 1 and N. The corresponding bit in the array (indexed from 1 to N) is found and set to 1, thereby recording the output of the hash function. Then, the next hash function is used to set another bit and so on. Once all M hash functions have been applied, the search pattern will be "recorded" in the bloom filter as M bits that have been changed from 0 to 1.

Adding a pattern "A" to our simple bloom filter is an example of adding a pattern "A" to the simple bloom filter shown in An example of a simplistic bloom filter, with a 16-bit field and three hash functions.

Adding a second pattern is as simple as repeating this process. The pattern is hashed by each hash function in turn and the result is recorded by setting the bits to 1. Note that as a bloom filter is filled with more patterns, a hash function result might coincide with a bit that is already set to 1, in which case the bit is not changed. In essence, as more patterns record on overlapping bits, the bloom filter starts to become saturated with more bits set to 1 and the accuracy of the filter decreases. This is why the filter is a probabilistic data structure ­– it gets less accurate as more patterns are added. The accuracy depends on the number of patterns added versus the size of the bit array (N) and number of hash functions (M). A larger bit array and more hash functions can record more patterns with higher accuracy. A smaller bit array or fewer hash functions will record fewer patterns and produce less accuracy.

Figure 9. Adding a pattern "A" to our simple bloom filter

Adding a second pattern "B" to our simple bloom filter is an example of adding a second pattern "B" to the simple bloom filter.

Figure 10. Adding a second pattern "B" to our simple bloom filter


To test if a pattern is part of a bloom filter, the pattern is hashed by each hash function and the resulting bit pattern is tested against the bit array. If all the bits indexed by the hash functions are set to 1, then the pattern is probably recorded in the bloom filter. Because the bits may be set because of overlap from multiple patterns, the answer is not certain, but is rather probabilistic. In simple terms, a bloom filter positive match is a "Maybe, Yes".

Testing the existence of pattern "X" in the bloom filter. The result is a probabilistic positive match, meaning "Maybe". is an example of testing the existence of pattern "X" in the simple bloom filter. The corresponding bits are set to 1, so the pattern is probably a match.

Figure 11. Testing the existence of pattern "X" in the bloom filter. The result is a probabilistic positive match, meaning "Maybe".


On the contrary, if a pattern is tested against the bloom filter and any one of the bits is set to 0, this proves that the pattern was not recorded in the bloom filter. A negative result is not a probability, it is a certainty. In simple terms, a negative match on a bloom filter is a "Definitely Not!"

Testing the existence of pattern "Y" in the bloom filter. The result is a definitive negative match, meaning "Definitely Not!" is an example of testing the existence of pattern "Y" in the simple bloom filter. One of the corresponding bits is set to 0, so the pattern is definitely not a match.

Figure 12. Testing the existence of pattern "Y" in the bloom filter. The result is a definitive negative match, meaning "Definitely Not!"


How SPV Nodes Use Bloom Filters

Bloom filters are used to filter the transactions (and blocks containing them) that an SPV node receives from its peers, selecting only transactions of interest to the SPV node without revealing which addresses or keys it is interested in.

An SPV node will initialize a bloom filter as "empty"; in that state the bloom filter will not match any patterns. The SPV node will then make a list of all the addresses, keys, and hashes that it is interested in. It will do this by extracting the public key hash and script hash and transaction IDs from any UTXO controlled by its wallet. The SPV node then adds each of these to the bloom filter, so that the bloom filter will "match" if these patterns are present in a transaction, without revealing the patterns themselves.

The SPV node will then send a filterload message to the peer, containing the bloom filter to use on the connection. On the peer, bloom filters are checked against each incoming transaction. The full node checks several parts of the transaction against the bloom filter, looking for a match including:

  • The transaction ID
  • The data components from the locking scripts of each of the transaction outputs (every key and hash in the script)
  • Each of the transaction inputs
  • Each of the input signature data components (or witness scripts)

By checking against all these components, bloom filters can be used to match public key hashes, scripts, OP_RETURN values, public keys in signatures, or any future component of a smart contract or complex script.

After a filter is established, the peer will then test each transaction's output against the bloom filter. Only transactions that match the filter are sent to the node.

In response to a getdata message from the node, peers will send a merkleblock message that contains only block headers for blocks matching the filter and a merkle path for each matching transaction. The peer will then also send tx messages containing the transactions matched by the filter.

As the full node sends transactions to the SPV node, the SPV node discards any false positives and uses the correctly matched transactions to update its UTXO set and wallet balance. As it updates its own view of the UTXO set, it also modifies the bloom filter to match any future transactions referencing the UTXO it just found. The full node then uses the new bloom filter to match new transactions and the whole process repeats.

The node setting the bloom filter can interactively add patterns to the filter by sending a filteradd message. To clear the bloom filter, the node can send a filterclear message. Because it is not possible to remove a pattern from a bloom filter, a node has to clear and resend a new bloom filter if a pattern is no longer desired.

The network protocol and bloom filter mechanism for SPV nodes is defined in BIP-37 (Peer Services).


SPV Nodes and Privacy

Nodes that implement SPV have weaker privacy than a full node. A full node receives all transactions and therefore reveals no information about whether it is using some address in its wallet. An SPV node receives a filtered list of transactions related to the addresses that are in its wallet. As a result, it reduces the privacy of the owner.

Bloom filters are a way to reduce the loss of privacy. Without them, an SPV node would have to explicitly list the addresses it was interested in, creating a serious breach of privacy. However, even with bloom filters, an adversary monitoring the traffic of an SPV client or connected to it directly as a node in the P2P network can collect enough information over time to learn the addresses in the wallet of the SPV client.


Encrypted and Authenticated Connections

Most new users of bitcoin assume that the network communications of a bitcoin node are encrypted. In fact, the original implementation of bitcoin communicates entirely in the clear. While this is not a major privacy concern for full nodes, it is a big problem for SPV nodes.

As a way to increase the privacy and security of the bitcoin P2P network, there are two solutions that provide encryption of the communications: Tor Transport and P2P Authentication and Encryption with BIP-150/151.


Tor Transport

Tor, which stands for The Onion Routing network, is a software project and network that offers encryption and encapsulation of data through randomized network paths that offer anonymity, untraceability and privacy.

Bitcoin Core offers several configuration options that allow you to run a bitcoin node with its traffic transported over the Tor network. In addition, Bitcoin Core can also offer a Tor hidden service allowing other Tor nodes to connect to your node directly over Tor.

As of Bitcoin Core version 0.12, a node will offer a hidden Tor service automatically if it is able to connect to a local Tor service. If you have Tor installed and the Bitcoin Core process runs as a user with adequate permissions to access the Tor authentication cookie, it should work automatically. Use the debug flag to turn on Bitcoin Core's debugging for the Tor service like this:

$ bitcoind --daemon --debug=tor


You should see "tor: ADD_ONION successful" in the logs, indicating that Bitcoin Core has added a hidden service to the Tor network.

You can find more instructions on running Bitcoin Core as a Tor hidden service in the Bitcoin Core documentation (docs/ and various online tutorials.


Peer-to-Peer Authentication and Encryption

Two Bitcoin Improvement Proposals, BIP-150 and BIP-151, add support for P2P authentication and encryption in the bitcoin P2P network. These two BIPs define optional services that may be offered by compatible bitcoin nodes. BIP-151 enables negotiated encryption for all communications between two nodes that support BIP-151. BIP-150 offers optional peer authentication that allows nodes to authenticate each other's identity using ECDSA and private keys. BIP-150 requires that prior to authentication the two nodes have established encrypted communications as per BIP-151.

As of February 2021, BIP-150 and BIP-151 are not implemented in Bitcoin Core. However, the two proposals have been implemented by at least one alternative bitcoin client named bcoin.

BIP-150 and BIP-151 allow users to run SPV clients that connect to a trusted full node, using encryption and authentication to protect the privacy of the SPV client.

Additionally, authentication can be used to create networks of trusted bitcoin nodes and prevent Man-in-the-Middle attacks. Finally, P2P encryption, if deployed broadly, would strengthen the resistance of bitcoin to traffic analysis and privacy-eroding surveillance, especially in totalitarian countries where internet use is heavily controlled and monitored.

The standard is defined in BIP-150 (Peer Authentication) and BIP-151 (Peer-to-Peer Communication Encryption).


Transaction Pools

Almost every node on the bitcoin network maintains a temporary list of unconfirmed transactions called the memory poolmempool, or transaction pool. Nodes use this pool to keep track of transactions that are known to the network but are not yet included in the blockchain. For example, a wallet node will use the transaction pool to track incoming payments to the user's wallet that have been received on the network but are not yet confirmed.

As transactions are received and verified, they are added to the transaction pool and relayed to the neighboring nodes to propagate on the network.

Some node implementations also maintain a separate pool of orphaned transactions. If a transaction's inputs refer to a transaction that is not yet known, such as a missing parent, the orphan transaction will be stored temporarily in the orphan pool until the parent transaction arrives.

When a transaction is added to the transaction pool, the orphan pool is checked for any orphans that reference this transaction's outputs (its children). Any matching orphans are then validated. If valid, they are removed from the orphan pool and added to the transaction pool, completing the chain that started with the parent transaction. In light of the newly added transaction, which is no longer an orphan, the process is repeated recursively looking for any further descendants, until no more descendants are found. Through this process, the arrival of a parent transaction triggers a cascade reconstruction of an entire chain of interdependent transactions by re-uniting the orphans with their parents all the way down the chain.

Both the transaction pool and orphan pool (where implemented) are stored in local memory and are not saved on persistent storage; rather, they are dynamically populated from incoming network messages. When a node starts, both pools are empty and are gradually populated with new transactions received on the network.

Some implementations of the bitcoin client also maintain an UTXO database or pool, which is the set of all unspent outputs on the blockchain. Bitcoin Core users will find it in the chainstate/ folder of their client's data directory. Although the name "UTXO pool" sounds similar to the transaction pool, it represents a different set of data. Unlike the transaction and orphan pools, the UTXO pool is not initialized empty but instead contains millions of entries of unspent transaction outputs, everything that is unspent from all the way back to the genesis block. The UTXO pool may be housed in local memory or as an indexed database table on persistent storage.

Whereas the transaction and orphan pools represent a single node's local perspective and might vary significantly from node to node depending upon when the node was started or restarted, the UTXO pool represents the emergent consensus of the network and therefore will vary little between nodes. Furthermore, the transaction and orphan pools only contain unconfirmed transactions, while the UTXO pool only contains confirmed outputs.


Source: Andreas M. Antonopoulos,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 4:05 PM