What is 'cryptojacking' and why you need to worry about it

With bitcoin currency picking up value over the years and reaching a record high last year, it's clear that everyone wants a piece of the cryptocurrency pie. Of course the value is highly volatile, the the drops being as precipitous as the rise in its value. The problem with the mining of cryptocurrency like bitcoin is the amount of energy that goes into obtaining it.

What is cryptocurrency and why is it so hard to mine?

There are basically two ways to make money off bitcoin. A simpler method is to simply head to virtual bitcoin exchange and buy them. The second and far more complex method is to mine your own cryptocurrency. The third method of obtaining cryptocurrency, applies to every other form of currency as well, and it's called stealing.

Representative Image, Reuters

Representative Image, Reuters

Mining bitcoin needs high-powered computer systems. These consume massive amounts of electricity to solve complex calculations, with the need for advanced and high-end graphic cards to help chomp down all of those calculations. Around the globe, there are massive warehouses that use powerful machines (servers) to crunch through numbers faster and mine more. The craving for cryptocurrency is so high that it has even created a surge in the price tags of computer graphic cards and according to some sources that hike in prices will remain till the end of the year. Why graphics cards? Well that's thanks to the massive parallel processing prowess you can eke out of them.

A recent report by Reuters also pointed out how dirty cryptocurrency mining really is. Turns out that consumption of electricity is so high, that "virtual currency can have a very real impact by adding pollutants in the air and contributing to global warming".

The same report pointed out to studies hinting that total annual energy output for hundreds of thousands of dedicated mining machines worldwide was estimated at 35 terawatt which is pretty much the energy consumption of Denmark according to Digiconomist.

"Each transaction consumes roughly 100 kWh — the equivalent of running a lightbulb for three months. By contrast, a credit card transaction uses about 0.2 kWh." which makes it clear that mining cryptocurrency is not exactly fastest way to get rich.

With growing popularity, it is obvious that cryptocurrencies like monero and bitcoin are the next big target for attackers online.

Bitcoin is a computer-generated currency. Often referred to as virtual gold, the value of the currency rises and drops and with the prices skyrocketing in the past year, bitcoin exchanges have become targets of large scale attacks.

Just in 2017, the value of cryptocurrencies went from under $1000 to a hefty $19,500.

Why mine it yourself when others can mine it for you?

After the three methods of obtaining cryptocurrency, there is unofficially now a fourth way to do it and it's called 'cryptojacking'.

Simply explained, hackers (or attackers) use malware to mine cryptocurrency off host devices letting websites bear the processing load instead of the hacker's own crypto mining systems.

Cryptocurrencies use the system of a distributed ledger which uses computers to verify and add to that ledger. Adding to that ledger creates more currency, so the more processing power you have, the more cryptocurrency you can mine.

So instead of filling a warehouse with servers to run their own cryptocurrency mining operation, hackers use website servers and hijack the systems visiting those websites, to conduct mining operations remotely.

Think of it as distributed computing, something similar to what the SETI@home project which employed the BIONC software platform created by Berkeley SETI Research Center (running on volunteer systems) to analyze radio signals for searching extraterrestrial intelligence. Just that in this case the consent of the user is not taken.

How does cryptojacking work?

Cryptojacking works off a user's browser or can be plugged into popular websites, that will then use resources from a visitor's PC using their browser.

Hackers insert low-risk malware by targeting individual computers, or take the simpler and more popular route of embedding such malware on large online portals.

Using the latter makes more sense as such portals see massive traffic. These could range from unprotected government websites to news websites and even those belonging to companies providing services online, which see lots of traffic on a daily basis with plenty of users logged in to get things done. Modern manufacturing plants too can be a target with so many computers being online and always running at the same time.

So when a government portal is found to have malware running crypto mining operations, all of the users accessing the same can expect their systems to be infected as well.

Once the malware has been embedded on such websites, it reaches out to individual users accessing those websites for services and then hijacks their web browsers, slowing down their systems tremendously because of the mining process being conducted on each of their systems.

In the case smartphones the effects are similar.

According to security firm Wandera, almost all of the users exposed to cryptojacking are unaware that the script is running on their device. The reason cited for the same, is the use case for a smartphone, that often works with one app on display at a given time, meaning that tabs or apps left open in the background are almost never closed or forgotten by the user. With this in mind, malware can remain in the background for long without being detected.

The research conducted by the firm has also revealed that scripts running in the background do cause rapid battery drain. A fully charged iPhone 7 with an single browser tab open using a Coinhive-based system can be drained completely in two hours. The report also points out how device temperatures also rose by more than 20 degrees when running these scripts.

There could be a positive side to this

Indeed, it's not a good thing to conduct mining operations without informing site visitors about the same. This is more so, because the mining operation will reduce the performance of the host system, which in turn reduces their productivity.

However, it has been an online debate about whether cyrptojacking could actually be a good idea.

Publishers for example could inform users about leasing their systems for crypto mining operations, in return for an ad-free reading experience, making its a win win for both the visitor and the host website.

Unfortunately, in most cryptojacking cases that have surfaced online, neither the portal nor its users were aware that they were both victims.

What it does it do to hijacked systems

In fact, it's even possible to hijack a smartphone for crypto mining operations (provided you are mining the right currency) with the user noticing reduced performance or increased battery consumption.

A simple example was the case of a Starbucks Wi-Fi service in a store in Buenos Aires that let hackers offload their mining code on to user's computers to run mining operations. Users logging on to the store's Wi-Fi network found the processing speed of their devices drop drastically.

Another example was an incident reported by The Register where more than 4,200 websites were found to be infected with a malicious version of a popular tool called Browsealound.

The software was built by British software maker Texthelp, and basically reads out webpages for users with vision problems.

A tainted version of the software inserted software for mining the popular cryptocurrency called Monero and hijacked systems of thousands of users, helping mine more currency for the hackers.

With the demand for cryptocurrencies rising by the day, it is no surprise that a country with a population as large as India could be an easy target.

While most reported instances of cryptojacking so far have been involved in just crypto mining, there could be wider complications to this like siphoning off personal data that could have a bigger impact than just performance drops.

Published Date: Mar 03, 2018 15:08 PM | Updated Date: Mar 03, 2018 15:08 PM