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Understanding the pros and cons of smart contract upgradeability in DeFi

source-logo  cryptoslate.com 08 July 2024 16:00, UTC

Smart contract proxy upgradeability allows developers to update the logic of deployed smart contracts while preserving the contract’s state and address. This provides flexibility to fix bugs or add features but also introduces potential risks.

Smart contracts, self-executing agreements on blockchain networks, traditionally operate as immutable code once deployed. This immutability is a cornerstone of trust in blockchain technology, ensuring that contract terms cannot be altered unilaterally. However, the inability to modify contracts post-deployment can pose challenges, mainly when bugs are discovered or improvements become necessary.

Proxy-upgradeability in smart contracts

Proxy-upgradeability addresses this limitation by introducing a two-contract system. A proxy contract stores the state and holds user funds, while a separate logic contract contains the actual functionality. The proxy delegates function calls to the logic contract, which can be replaced with an upgraded version without changing the proxy’s address or disturbing stored data.

This approach offers significant advantages. Developers can patch vulnerabilities, implement new features, and optimize performance without disrupting user interactions or requiring fund migration. Major DeFi protocols, including Compound, Aave, and Uniswap V3, have adopted upgradeable contracts, leveraging this flexibility to enhance their platforms over time while establishing themselves as relatively trustworthy entities through a combination of rigorous security measures and transparent operations.

These protocols have implemented comprehensive security practices, including thorough audits, formal verifications, and ongoing bug bounty programs. Their smart contracts are open-source, allowing for public scrutiny and verification of functionality. Additionally, they have adopted decentralized governance systems where token holders can participate in decision-making, enhancing transparency and reducing the risk of unilateral changes that could harm users.

Their established track records further bolster the trustworthiness of these protocols. They have operated successfully for significant periods and managed billions of dollars in assets. They consistently update and improve their systems based on community feedback and evolving market conditions. Robust monitoring and alerting systems and detailed incident response plans demonstrate their commitment to security.

Moreover, despite operating in a nascent space, their efforts toward regulatory compliance add another layer of credibility from regulators’ perspectives. The high liquidity in these protocols also contributes to their resilience against certain types of attacks and market manipulations. However, no system is entirely risk-free, and users should always exercise caution and conduct their own due diligence when interacting with any DeFi protocol.

Risks of upgradeable smart contracts

The ability to modify smart contract logic introduces new vectors for potential exploitation. Centralization risk emerges as a primary concern, with upgrade capabilities often controlled by a small group of administrators or governance participants. This concentration of power may be seen to contrast with the decentralized ethos of many blockchain projects when not combined with transparent DAO practices.

Malicious upgrades represent another potential threat. If compromised or acting in bad faith, administrators could theoretically alter contract logic to siphon user funds or manipulate protocol operations. While governance processes and security measures aim to mitigate this risk, the possibility remains a point of contention within the community with the rise of sophisticated AI phishing scams.

Technical vulnerabilities in the upgrade process itself pose additional dangers. Errors during upgrades can lead to loss of funds, data corruption, or render contracts inoperable. The complexity of proxy patterns increases the attack surface, potentially introducing subtle bugs that may go unnoticed until exploited.

How to interact with DeFi safely

For users navigating the DeFi landscape, identifying and evaluating upgradeable contracts becomes crucial. Examining contract code for proxy patterns, such as OpenZeppelin’s, can reveal upgradeability features. Protocol documentation often discloses upgrade capabilities, though users should know that this information may not always be prominently displayed.

Assessing the safety of upgradeable contracts requires careful consideration of governance structures and upgrade processes. Timelock delays on upgrades allow users to react to proposed changes. Multi-signature controls on administrative functions distribute power and reduce single points of failure. The protocol team’s reputation and track record offer additional context for evaluating trustworthiness.

Limiting exposure and long-term storage of large amounts in these systems may be recommended for risk-averse users when interacting with upgradeable contracts. Actively monitoring upgrade proposals and participating in governance processes, where possible, allows users to stay informed and potentially influence protocol decisions.

The debate surrounding smart contract upgradeability reflects broader tensions between innovation and security, flexibility, and immutability in the blockchain space. While upgradeable contracts offer potent tools for protocol development, they require users to trust human systems rather than rely solely on immutable code.

Striking the right balance between upgradeability and security remains a central challenge. Users must remain vigilant, carefully evaluating the risks and benefits of interacting with upgradeable systems. Self-sovereignty does not come for free; the costs and risks of security are paid by the end user. In traditional finance, these costs are handled by centralized bodies such as banks and financial institutions. ‘Bank-grade security’ is a term used to define high-end security systems for precisely this reason.

Self-custody means the buck stops with the users, and traditional laissez-faire attitudes toward security and risk are incompatible with Web 3.

To support this, developers and protocol teams are responsible for implementing robust governance mechanisms and transparent upgrade processes to maintain user trust.