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What Is Semaphore?


Semaphore is a zero-knowledge gadget which allows Ethereum users to prove their membership of a set which they had previously joined without revealing their original identity. At the same time, it allows users to signal their endorsement of an arbitrary string. It is designed to be a simple and generic privacy layer for Ethereum dApps. Use cases include private voting, whistleblowing, mixers, and anonymous authentication. Finally, it provides a simple built-in mechanism to prevent double-signalling or double-spending.

This gadget comprises of smart contracts and zero-knowledge components which work in tandem. The Semaphore smart contract handles state, permissions, and proof verification on-chain. The zero-knowledge components work off-chain to allow the user to generate proofs, which allow the smart contract to update its state if these proofs are valid.

For a formal description of Semaphore and its underlying cryptographic mechanisms, also see this document here.

Semaphore is designed for smart contract and dApp developers, not end users. Developers should abstract its features away in order to provide user-friendly privacy.

Try a simple demo here or read a high-level description of Semaphore here.

Basic features

In sum, Semaphore provides the ability to:

  1. Register an identity in a smart contract, and then:

  2. Broadcast a signal:

    • Anonymously prove that their identity is in the set of registered identities, and at the same time:

    • Publicly store an arbitrary string in the contract, if and only if that string is unique to the user and the contract鈥檚 current external nullifier, which is a unique value akin to a topic. This means that double-signalling the same message under the same external nullifier is not possible.

External nullifiers

Think of an external nullifier as a voting booth where each user may only cast one vote. If they try to cast a second vote a the same booth, that vote is invalid.

An external nullifier is any 29-byte value. Semaphore always starts with one external nullifier, which is set upon contract deployment. The owner of the Semaphore contract may add more external nullifiers, deactivate, or reactivate existing ones.

The first time a particular user broadcasts a signal to an active external nullifier n, and if the user's proof of membership of the set of registered users is valid, the transaction will succeed. The second time she does so to the same n, however, her transaction will fail.

Additionally, all signals broadcast transactions to a deactivated external nullifier will fail.

Each client application must use the above features of Semaphore in a unique way to achieve its privacy goals. A mixer, for instance, would use one external nullifier as such:

SignalExternal nullifier
The hash of the recipient's address, relayer's address, and the relayer's feeThe mixer contract's address

This allows anonymous withdrawals of funds (via a transaction relayer, who is rewarded with a fee), and prevents double-spending as there is only one external nullifier.

An anonymous voting app would be configured differently:

SignalExternal nullifier
The hash of the respondent's answerThe hash of the question

This allows any user to vote with an arbitary response (e.g. yes, no, or maybe) to any question. The user, however, can only vote once per question.

About the code

This repository contains the code for Semaphore's contracts written in Soliidty, and zk-SNARK circuits written in circom. It also contains Typescript code to execute tests.

The code has been audited by ABDK Consulting. Their suggested security and efficiency fixes have been applied.

A multi-party computation to produce the zk-SNARK proving and verification keys for Semaphore will begin in the near future.