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Jun 01, 2024
4 min read

Front-Running Attacks in Blockchain

Front-running attacks in the context of blockchain and cryptocurrencies refer to the act of exploiting information about pending transactions to gain an unfair advantage. This typically involves observing a transaction that is about to be executed, and then quickly placing a transaction that benefits from the anticipated price movement or outcome of the original transaction. Front-running is particularly relevant in decentralized finance (DeFi) and blockchain systems where transactions are publicly visible before they are confirmed in a block.

How it Works:

  1. Pending Transactions: When a user initiates a transaction on the blockchain, it is broadcasted to the network and added to the mempool. This transaction gets broadcasted and ends up waiting in the mempool before being included in a block.
  2. Observing the Mempool: An attacker, like a miner or a bot, closely monitors the mempool, looking for specific transactions that indicate a particular action about to take place. They’re looking for specific actions, like someone buying a particular token or interacting with a smart contract.
  3. Identifying Profitable Transactions: By monitoring the mempool, an attacker can identify transactions that could be profitable if front-run. If the attacker spots a juicy transaction, they can use their own knowledge to exploit it.
  4. Placing a Front-Running Transaction: In a front-running attack, the attacker deliberately sets a higher gas price for their transaction. By doing so, they essentially “bribe” the miners to include their transaction in a block before the original transaction. They’ll quickly submit a similar transaction right before yours, often with a higher gas fee. This ensures their transaction gets processed first by the miners.
  5. Reaping the Rewards: By front-running your transaction, the attacker can manipulate the market in their favor. For instance, if you were trying to buy a token at a specific price, the attacker might buy it first, driving the price up before your transaction goes through.

Types of Front-Running:

  • Order-Based Front-Running: The attacker places a similar transaction ahead of a large pending order to benefit from the expected price movement.
  • Trade-Based Front-Running: The attacker buys a token ahead of a large buy order, causing the price to increase, and then sells it at a higher price once the original order executes.
  • Insertion: The attacker inserts their transaction before yours to manipulate the outcome.
  • Displacement: The attacker pushes your transaction out of the mempool entirely by flooding it with other transactions.
  • Suppression: The attacker prevents your transaction from being broadcast altogether.

Mechanisms of Front-Running:

  • Bots: Automated scripts or bots monitor the mempool and submit transactions with higher fees to ensure they are mined first.
  • Miners: Miners themselves can front-run by rearranging the order of transactions in the block they are mining.

Impact on Users: Front-running can lead to significant financial losses for the original transaction initiator, as the expected profit is captured by the front-runner. It can also lead to higher transaction costs and market inefficiencies.

Mitigation Strategies:

  • Private Transactions: Using methods to obscure transaction details until they are confirmed, such as commit-reveal schemes or specialized privacy-preserving technologies.
  • Transaction Randomization: Randomizing the order in which transactions are included in blocks.
  • Better Fee Models: Implementing fee structures that discourage front-running, such as Ethereum’s EIP-1559, which introduces a base fee mechanism.

While front-running is a concern, there are ways to mitigate the risk. Some exchanges and platforms implement measures to prevent front-running, and you can adjust your gas fees to prioritize your transaction if needed. However, it’s always a good idea to be aware of this type of attack and stay vigilant in the crypto space. Front-running attacks can have a significant impact on the fairness and transparency of the blockchain landscape. They can be used to amass substantial amounts by exploiting retail investors. However, on the flip side, front-running attacks can also serve a good purpose for recovering assets stolen in hacking attacks.