Privacy Showdown: Monero (XMR) vs. Zcash (ZEC) Compete in Carnegie Mellon University Study


TL;DR: In a new, 23-page study from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), researchers investigated cryptocurrency privacy competitors Monero (XMR) and Zcash (ZEC), comparing transaction performance as it relates to un-traceability. “We will test how traceable these currencies are after the most recent security updates, and how they hold up against their claims.”

Monero (XMR) vs. Zcash (ZEC) Compete in Carnegie Mellon University Privacy Study

“Many alt-coins developed in recent years make strong privacy guarantees,” Carnegie Mellon University researchers, led by undergrad senior Electrical & Computer Engineering student Claire Ye, explained, “claiming to be virtually untraceable.” Loosely defined, an “alt-coin,” of course, is an alternative to the cryptocurrency granddaddy of them all, BTC, itself once falsely thought to be virtually untraceable.

Taken from Claire Ye, Chinedu Ojukwu, Anthony Hsu, Ruiqi Hu, “Alt-Coin Traceability”

Alt-Coin Traceability “explores the extent to which these claims are true after the
first appraisals were made about these coins.” They chose Monero and Zcash, long considered leaders in this regard. Ye and her team ran “some traceability experiments based on previously published papers for each coin,” and their results “show that, introducing strict security and anonymity requirements into the cryptocurrency ecosystem makes the coin effectively untraceable,” tipping the scales toward Monero. The study was careful to point out, however, “Zcash still hesitates to introduce changes that alter user behavior. Despite its strong cryptographic features, transactions are overall more traceable.”

It’s Not About the Cryptography, It’s About the Implementation

“This paper needs a LOT of work on the surface,” Justin Ehrenhofer, Regulatory Compliance Analyst at DV Trading and CEO of Lernolibro LLC, publisher of Mastering Monero: The future of private transactions, underscored. “Many claims are unsubstantiated. Lots of information is inferred. Complete lack of Sapling tooling? I’m not sure. Hopefully there’s a new version,” he stressed. Ehrenhofer was among the first to bring attention to the CMU study.

The paper follows a standard outline, reviewing the history of both projects, their development and respective privacy claims. CMU researchers then put the coins through a battery of code traceability tests: Monero here, Zcash here. Ye’s team appeared to have a tougher time slogging through Zcash’s complexity, and as such the paper seems weighted toward navigating mounds of arcane ZEC-related applications.


An interesting aside is how CMU undergrads were able to use XMR and ZEC in the wild. Under the guidance of Associate Professor Nicolas Christin from the School of Computer Science (Institute for Software Research) and Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Ye and her team were reimbursed for the costs of purchasing BTC used to buy Monero and Zcash.

In the end, Alt-Coin Traceability, as a pre-print, concludes Monero’s introduction of innovations such as “RingCT and the increase of mandatory mixins to 10” make it “much harder to trace the transactions.” Revealingly, researchers also conclude, “As we expected, Zcash’s privacy guarantees are questionable, despite continued cryptographic advancements in the new releases. As the volume of public transactions increase at a much faster rate than that of shielded and private transactions, the overall anonymity of ZEC users, even if they are fully utilizing the features of the shielded pools, is decreased.” Or, as former lead Monero maintainer Riccardo Spagni quipped, “It’s not about the cryptography, it’s about the implementation.”

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