Kyle Swan

Are You Mining Bitcoin? Your Personal Computer May Be Without Your Knowledge

The price of Bitcoin (BTC) has soared in 2017 with little sign of looking back. It now sits above $7,000/BTC,1 up from roughly $1,000/BTC since January, which is motivating many to acquire more of the virtual currency.2 In addition to purchasing the cryptocurrency, one can also “mine” Bitcoin; the blockchain3 maintained by the Bitcoin network requires significant computational power to validate transactions made with Bitcoin, and those who contribute to that computational power, and hence aid in the verification process, are compensated in Bitcoin through transaction fees paid by the parties to the transaction.4

With the rising price of Bitcoin, many Bitcoin miners are searching for ways to attain greater computational power and subsequently receive more Bitcoin for their increased contributions to the blockchain. Legitimate Bitcoin miners will simply purchase additional servers for greater computational power, but servers are expensive. Hackers have begun to compromise not only corporate servers but also personal computers with malignant software and reprogram them to mine Bitcoin.5

When targeting an ordinary personal computer or cloud server, hackers install Bitcoin-mining software unbeknownst to the user, allowing them to create a pool of systems that operate together. Although it takes a typical personal computer roughly four years to mine a single Bitcoin, hackers who compromise a pool of personal computers can create a significant amount of cash over a shorter time without paying the price of power consumption or computing power.6

Hackers have adopted this malware mining strategy because it is less invasive and reportedly safer than other strategies, such as ransomware, which are more likely to catch the attention of law enforcement.7 For example, the mining software provides few indicators that it is operating in the background and may only slow down the computer’s system, in contrast to ransomware, which shuts out users from their systems entirely.8 Although hackers receive lesser payouts with the mining strategy, they are better able to continue their actions discreetly.

This is not a completely new phenomenon—hackers have attempted to compromise systems for mining not only Bitcoin, the current hot commodity, but also other types of virtual currency.9 The anonymous nature of virtual currencies and lack of a centralized authority in control of the Bitcoin exchange allows hackers to remain anonymous while utilizing the computational power of their victims. Those concerned about the use of their system for virtual currency mining should install anti-malware software that can detect and shut down a mining software.10 Standard practices of internet security, such as only clicking on trusted links, creating strong passwords, and keeping software up to date, can help as well.11

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2018; University of Virginia, B.A. 2014. ©2018, Kyle Swan.