Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, remain an enigma to most people. Their understanding of the concept is typically limited to the fact that it is a virtual currency that exists solely online.
They may have heard the terms “Blockchain” or “Bitcoin mining” in passing, but likely don’t know what they mean or how significant they are.
Mass awareness may soon be inevitable, however, as there has been a recent trend towards hackers targeting vulnerable websites and computers to earn bitcoin for themselves without the permission of end-users.
To make it happen, they’re inserting malicious code that is hijacking the computing resources of their targets in order to mine bitcoins in the background. To understand the problem, it’s necessary to first understand Bitcoin itself.
What is Bitcoin and Bitcoin Mining?
Bitcoin is a digital currency that relies on distributed computing to process transactions and verify accuracy throughout the world. Put simply, it is a traded currency whose value is determined by supply and demand. Every time someone spends a unit of Bitcoin, a decentralized network of computers make sure that the transaction is valid before passing it along to other nodes for further verification.
Once a transaction is deemed legitimate, it’s written into a digital ledger, called the Blockchain. Encrypted copies of the Blockchain are then stored all across the distributed network, so no individual can modify it in an attempt to defraud the system.
Since the processing power and electricity requirements of a network that large are vast and therefore expensive, the work is done by volunteer users who are then compensated for the work in the form of Bitcoins.
This is the process known as Bitcoin mining. It’s called that because it generates revenue for participants in a similar way to that of precious metal and gemstone mining. It is also the means by which new currency gets into circulation.
Miners Go Rogue
As the current trading price of a single Bitcoin has reached about $12,000, hackers have begun to see the currency as a lucrative target. They figured out that they could install mining software on vulnerable computers to earn Bitcoin, often without detection.
Since the software isn’t destructive, an end user would only notice it based upon seeing an unfamiliar process running that was using a lot of system resources. Most of the time, the software works quietly in the background and users remain unaware of it.
Hackers haven’t only been targeting computers, though. They have also been attacking websites as well. Although they’ve since been cleaned up and secured, Showtime Network and Politifact have already been two of the highest profile targets.
Attackers compromised both sites in a way that allowed them to install malicious code that would use the resources of every visitor’s computer to mine for Monero, another cryptocurrency. These types of attacks are proving even harder to detect since they install nothing on the visitor’s computer, and function only while the affected site is open in a web browser.
Knowledge is Power
Antivirus vendors are already updating their software to detect bitcoin mining programs, and there are already a few browser plugins that can prevent compromised websites from using a computer’s resources.
The never-ending evolution of cryptocurrencies makes defensive measures a difficult proposition, though, so user awareness is still the key to prevent victimization.
Learning to look for the telltale signs of a bitcoin miner such as unusual memory and processor usage is the best way that end users can protect themselves. There’s no telling how widespread the problem is likely to become, so for now, vigilance is the best antidote.