A Merkle tree, also known as a binary hash tree or hash tree, is a data structure used in computer science and cryptography to efficiently verify the integrity and authenticity of data stored in a large dataset, particularly in distributed systems like blockchain. The Merkle tree is named after its inventor, Ralph Merkle.
Here’s how a Merkle tree works:
Data Segmentation: The dataset to be verified is divided into smaller, fixed-size blocks or chunks. In the context of blockchain, these chunks often represent individual transactions.
Hashing: Each data block is individually hashed using a cryptographic hash function (e.g., SHA-256). This process transforms the data in each block into a fixed-size string of characters, which is unique to the data in that block.
Pairwise Hashing: The hash values of adjacent data blocks are then paired together, and the pairs are concatenated. For example, blocks 1 and 2 are hashed together, and blocks 3 and 4 are hashed together. This process continues until there is an odd number of hash values.
Repetition: If there’s an odd number of hash values after the pairwise hashing, the last hash value is duplicated and paired with itself to ensure an even number of hash values.
Hashing Again: The process of pairwise hashing and concatenation is repeated until only one hash value remains. This final hash value is known as the “Merkle root” or “root hash.”
Root Hash: The Merkle root is a single hash value that represents the entire dataset. It is the topmost node of the Merkle tree.
The Merkle tree structure allows for efficient verification of data integrity. To verify whether a specific data block (transaction) is included in the dataset represented by the Merkle tree, one does not need to examine all the data blocks. Instead, they can follow these steps:
- Obtain the Merkle root from a trusted source (e.g., a blockchain network).
- Receive a data block (transaction) along with its hash value.
- Start at the bottom of the Merkle tree, where the data blocks are located.
- Hash the received data block.
- Move upward through the tree, hashing and concatenating pairs of hash values as needed, until reaching the Merkle root.
- Compare the computed Merkle root with the trusted Merkle root. If they match, the data block is confirmed to be part of the dataset.
This process greatly reduces the computational effort required to verify data integrity, making it efficient for blockchain networks to prove the inclusion of transactions in a block. If any data in a block is altered, it would result in a completely different Merkle root, immediately revealing the tampering of data.