In MRL-0004, it's said:

Bob wishes to send 0.75 XMR to Alice, and will pay 0.01 XMR in fees. The Monero that Alice receives, 0.75 XMR, will be delivered as two new unspent transaction outputs with amounts 0.7 XMR and 0.05 XMR. Further, an output of 0.01 XMR must be delivered as a fee. This leaves 0.24 XMR as change, which will be delivered to Bob in two unspent transaction outputs of amount 0.2 and 0.04 XMR each. At some point in time later, Alice realizes she has 0.75 XMR and decides to go spend it some place. When she does so, both of her outputs, 0.7 XMR and 0.05 XMR, are included in her ring signature. An observer could then look at her ring signature and draw a conclusion that whoever signed that ring signature probably is the owner of both the 0.7 XMR and the 0.05 XMR.

Is it possible to trace an output among many transactions like this? Because when I spend an output and then inspect the transaction (like in here), I find the "key image" field of each output completely different from the transaction that created those outputs in the past. Is there some other field that's not shown here that uniquely identifies an output?

And if the outputs can be traced, then the mentioned attack seems almost trivial to carry out. Am I missing something here?

1 Answer 1


An output's public key uniquely identifies an output [1]. A ring signature takes N outputs, one of them being the one that's actually spent, and makes a signature that can be verified, such that:

  • one of the outputs in this ring is spent

  • all the outputs in this ring have equal probability of being the one being spent

Now, the scenario in MRL-0004 is more complex than just looking at which outputs are spent, because (assuming N > 1) we can't tell which are spent with certainty just by looking at the ring. The scenario considers that a transaction contains two rings, one for 0.7, and one for 0.05. Each of these two rings will contain the real output (Alice's), plus N-1 others from the blockchain. However, you'll note that Alice received those two real outputs from the same transaction, so a blockchain observer can see that one of the inputs in the first ring and one of the inputs in the second ring were created in the same transaction. While this could be chance, it is more likely that those two outputs belong to the same address. This is a probabilistic inference, and not a certainty.

This is adressed in the RingCT branch, which has code to prefer spending unrelated outputs, if possible: https://github.com/moneromooo-monero/bitmonero/commit/f478336e68995ebd65a96ba249a3fc8e0f159fca. This code will first select outputs which do not share a transaction, or similar block height.

Cases where it might not be possible to spend unrelated outputs are typically if you're trying to spend a large part of your balance at once, and you do not have enough unrelated outputs.

[1] in the vast majority of cases, unless a bad RNG is used, or someone deliberately burns coins in this way

  • So in cases where I need to spend close to the whole balance, this attack can work, right? Isn't this important for untraceability? And can you also shortly describe the differences between the key image and public key of an output, where can I see this public key? I can't find it in bitmonerod's print_tx output.
    – mwdddgcs
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 11:39
  • 1
    If you send close to your whole balance, the attack can work, yes, that's what I meant. With rct, there will typically be just one output for you, since there is no need for denominations anymore, so the case won't present itself in the first place. Public keys are seen in the transasction, under just "key". Key image is a hash based on the private key IIRC. See steemit.com/monero/@luigi1111/… for details.
    – user36303
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 12:05
  • Just for the completion of the answer, can you point out how one can determine which outputs are being spent in a transaction (like in the MRL example)? Because in the inputs part of a transaction there are no public keys but key images, which are not output public keys. And I thought it was impossible to say whether an output was spent or not.
    – mwdddgcs
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 8:22
  • 1
    Inputs have an index. The public keys are already in the database, the index is just a way to encode it that's shorter. It's impossible to say whether an output is spent in the general case, but there are special cases, such as mixin 0.
    – user36303
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 8:25

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