Think hacking, hidden viruses and malware are bad enough? Meet the latest tech threat: a new form of background hacking called "crypto jacking."
Most cryptocurrencies require that in order for new coins to exist, computers need to "mine for gold," so to speak. (Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Cryptocurrency for more detail on how this works). Most valuable currencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, require expensive computer equipment to be mined, and a standard laptop or desktop computer would not be able to do the work. However, certain coins like Monero can be mined using almost any computer with a "Central Processing Unit" (CPU) or a "Graphics Processing Unit" (GPU). (Your computer would only have GPU if you paid a fortune for a something like an Alienware gaming laptop).
At the time of writing, one Monero coin (also known as XMR) is currently worth $86.06. If you wanted to mine 1 XMR every day, you would need at least 12 GPUs mining for you all day long. To get this done without having to buy a bunch of computers, hackers have figured out a way to insert code into a webpage so that other people's computers will mine for them while the computers’ owners are totally oblivious.
Has Your Computer Been Crypto Jacked?
One example of this situation played out on The Pirate Bay, a massively popular site that provides links to pirated movies, TV shows, and music distributed via peer-to-peer torrent networks. The Pirate Bay added a crypto jacking code onto the site to tap into the huge computing power linked through its users. Many people who actively use The Pirate Bay leave their computers on nearly all day to download, upload, and share movies and TV shows with others. With its built-in culture of sharing, one can only imagine how much money the site was earning off the millions of people who visit it every single day.
The Pirate Bay wasn't the only website taking advantage its users. You may be familiar with Showtime owned by the CBS Corporation. Showtime brings in viewers with popular series like The Affair, Homeland, and the TV version of This American Life hosted by Ira Glass. Recently, a "Coinhive miner" was found on the official Showtime streaming website. It's still unclear whether the company was knowingly mining Monero while unsuspecting users watched their favourite TV shows.
While this turn of events may be upsetting, there's actually a silver lining to all of this. Some sites are pushing to use crypto jacking as a less disruptive moneymaking strategy to replace ads. Legitimate services such as AuthedMine provide mining software to website owners, and AuthedMine in particular explicitly gives viewers the option to opt in or opt out of exchanging their CPU to mine Monero while they visit the site. The AuthedMine story is worth watching because it may provide a glimpse into a not-so-distant future where "background mining" is the norm.
Now, if you've already decided that you don't ever want websites to use your CPU, you can download the browser plugin called No Coin. Most ad blockers will already stop these miners from working in the first place, but No Coin can give you a little extra peace of mind.
Not long from now, we may be given a choice when visiting a website: would we rather share some of our processing speed or deal with popups? I'm not sure how I would answer that question today, but I would definitely appreciate a choice.