Cryptojacking has recently erupted onto the cybercrime scene, thanks to the surge in value during 2017 of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Monero, and Ethereum. Crooks are aggressively targeting laptops, desktops, servers, and even mobile devices. From a single device to entire networks, they infect as many devices as they can to mine for cryptocurrency on, or while using, other people's computers. Simply put, you do the work, pay for the electricity and hardware, and they pocket the rewards. Read this paper to learn how to fight back! We’ll explore the differences between legitimate mining and cryptojacking; how cryptojacking works; the costs of cryptojacking to today’s organizations; and practical steps you can take to avoid being a victim of cryptojacking.

Setting the stage

Cryptomining and cryptojacking are two terms that are commonly used when discussing this topic. Let’s start by quickly distinguishing between the two. Cryptomining is the act of doing all the necessary – and quite frankly very complex – effort required to generate and work with cryptocurrency. It can be both legitimate or malicious, which is determined by several factors, most significantly whether you consciously agree to it. Cryptojacking is malicious cryptomining.

The crooks get code onto your devices without your permission to mine for cryptocurrency using your equipment and your resources. They keep all the proceeds themselves while you get nothing for your hard work. A common misconception is that the sole purpose of miners is to generate cryptocurrency. It’s true, this is part of the job.

However, they also have another role that is at least equally as important: validating transactions on the blockchain. To explain blockchains, let’s use banks as an analogy as cryptocurrency is attempting to replace traditional currency. Usually, banks are in charge of keeping accurate records of transactions. In cooperation with governments, banks ensure that money isn't created out of thin air, and that people don't cheat and spend their money more than once.

Blockchains are responsible for the same duties, but also introduce a new way of record-keeping. With a blockchain the entire network, rather than an intermediary or individual, verifies transactions and adds them to the public ledger. Although a 'trustless' or 'trust-minimizing' monetary system is one of the goals for cryptocurrency, the financial records need to be secured, and the system must ensuring that no one cheats.

The miners who work on the blockchain come to a consensus about the transaction history while preventing fraud, notably the double spending of cryptocurrency. All of this sounds quite complex, and it is. However, there are some basic principles that, once understood, provides you with the ability to understand why cryptojacking has exploded as a trend.

Let’s start by looking at what it takes to perform legitimate mining and later learn the differences between legitimate and malicious mining.

 

How to be a cryptominer in four easy steps

Before you can start being a miner for a cryptocurrency, there are a few things you need to consider:

Hardware. Regardless of whether you are a casual miner or you’re making mining your full-time profession, your objective is to make money. To mine you need hardware, which clearly has an associated cost. For the casual miner, you may choose to use your gaming or personal machine as it is not being used most of the time. If you’re more serious, you can spend a considerable amount of money on customized cryptomining hardware. If you’re not buying dedicated hardware for mining, the next most efficient way of mining is by chaining together multiple graphics processing units (GPU).

This is your traditional graphics card, and miners prefer the high-end kind and they are not cheap. Why a GPU? Because GPUs are efficient at performing the mathematical calculations that are necessary to work on the blockchain. The market has already reached the point that it is almost impossible for gamers (not miners) to buy high-end graphics cards because the miners are eating up the supply as soon as it is available. Nvidia has already taken the unprecedented step of asking retailers to stop selling their cards to miners and focus on selling to gamers*.

The big question is, if mining is all about making money, how long is it going to take you to recoup your initial investment?

Ongoing investment. Over time all computer equipment gets faster and more efficient. The older your hardware, the slower it becomes in comparison to new hardware. Also, the bigger the hardware, the more electricity it will consume. Ongoing costs associated with running and maintaining your hardware will apply just like in a traditional business, but with cryptomining they can be considerable. The old statement “you need to spend money to make money” is very true here. 

Pools. As a single casual miner working on your own you would need to be incredibly lucky to successfully mine just one unit of cryptocurrency. Your chances are slim to none. So, what’s the answer? Pool your resources with those from other devices to create a “pool” with the computational power of all combined resources. The chances of successfully mining cryptocurrency increases with the size and computational power of the pool.

Pools are an important concept to understand for both legitimate and malicious mining operations. When you are running a mining application, are you a member of a legitimate or malicious pool? Obviously, both want their pools to be as big as possible as it increases computational power and the chances of successfully mining cryptocurrency. The big difference is how it pays out. While the legitimate pools will have an agreed method for splitting the proceeds amongst all members, the malicious pools usually only provide the proceeds to a single entity (namely the crook). Different pools have different payment structures and many will payout proportionally compared to how much you worked.

Now that you’ve got your hardware and a basic understanding of pools, you can begin mining. And legitimate mining is really just like working any other kind of job. There are four basic steps to make money from mining cryptocurrencies:

Step 1: Find a job!

This is known as joining a pool. You find a pool that is going to pay you a decent return for what you invest in time, computational power, and ongoing running costs. It’s essentially finding out what people are going to pay you for your work.

Step 2: Create a wallet.

After you have a job, you obviously want to be paid. Any proceeds you receive from mining need to go into a wallet. A wallet can be on an exchange, in software (i.e. a file on your device) or secured in hardware. The hardware option is the most secure and recommended option as it is harder to steal.

Step 3: Start working…

Next step, you need to find the mining program of your choice. There are many different options available depending on the cryptocurrency you are mining, and the specific type of GPU in your device. Then you have to start it. Don’t bother sitting and watching it because it’s just a command line and you’ll grow bored very quickly. It is a “set and forget” type of operation.

Step 4. Get paid.

Now sit back, watch the power bill grow, hope your machine doesn’t overheat and cross your fingers that you’ve joined a legitimate pool and will get paid… Generally, pools have an agreed-upon payment period. Ongoing costs associated with running and maintaining your hardware will apply just like in a traditional business, but with cryptomining they can be considerable, just like a real job. At that point in time they will divide the proceeds from the pool amongst all members of the pool in the agreed-upon fashion.

Crooks will take every piece of computational power they can grab!

The many faces of cryptojacking

Malicious JavaScript miners Malicious JavaScript miners are the quick and easy way for crooks to enslave a large number of devices. The logic is pretty simple: what do most people do on a regular basis? They browse the web. By turning every browser that goes to a website into a worker the crooks can very quickly add lots of devices to a malicious mining pool.

If you’re a cryptojacker, it’s brilliant: someone else does the work, you use their resources, and you get all the proceeds for yourself. Now, ask yourself how many devices have a browser that can run JavaScript? It’s a mindbendingly large number. Every laptop, desktop, mobile device (phone and tablet), servers, and other devices are the potential victims. And as the crooks have access to a large number of compromised websites, the chances that they will get devices with a browser running the JavaScript miner are very high.

JavaScript miners are transient miners, as your browser may only perform the mining tasks for a short period of time. The mining stops when you close the browser or the tab that is viewing the infected website, so it is in theory easy to stop. However, how often do you actually close your browser, or is it always running the background?

When a user surfs to a site or page hosting a malicious JavaScript miner, they are not asked for permission to run the JavaScript miner – it just runs. Around this time the CPU on the device will increase to near maximum capacity and the device will slow to a crawl. The more a processor works, the more electricity it consumes, the hotter it gets.

Mobile devices can rise to “cooking temperatures” and mining can drain a battery quickly, even leading to battery expansion and device destruction. Some of these JavaScript miners are smart and have the ability to limit their CPU usage, enabling them to remain hidden for longer. The longer they can hide and execute, the more work they perform for the crooks and their malicious pool. Even though a mobile device is not the most efficient miner, the crooks will take every piece of computational power they can grab!

Some JavaScript miners are smart enough to know that they are on a mobile device and only really go into full blown mining when they are attached to power and stays relatively dormant when operating on the battery. That way the user doesn’t notice a suspiciously large drop in battery performance – again so they can remain unnoticed for longer. Also, most people don’t pay attention to their phones if they have them plugged in and charging. This works better on a mobile device because people don’t close the browser on their mobile device – they mainly have it in the background as they swap to different apps.

The business implications of cryptojacking

Cryptojacking might sounds relatively harmless at first – it doesn’t need to read your personal data, or even to access to your file system. However, the downsides are still very significant:

1. Unbudgeted operating expenses from powering computers to work for someone else.

2. Opportunity costs because legitimate works gets slowed down. You think your computer is slow now, wait until you get cryptomining software on it!

3. Security risks from who-knows-what untrusted programs and network connections.

4. Reputational and regulatory costs of reporting, investigating and explaining the cryptomining activity.

5. Ethical concerns of allowing employees to mine using your resources.

Those risks are real, and you need to decide if your business can afford to ignore these risks. Your business needs to form an opinion on what is your policy on cryptomining. While the view on cryptojacking is simple – it should never be allowed – the view on legitimate mining varies from business to business.

Some companies will allow legitimate mining on company resources. Others will not. Again, there is an ethical component of allowing employees to use company resources, including the hardware, electricity, and ongoing running costs to perform legitimate cryptomining.

You can also ask yourself: does this make the employee the bad guy?

Fighting back against cryptojacking

When it comes to stopping cryptojacking there is no silver bullet. Just like protecting yourself against ransomware, you need to take a layered approach to protection.

1. Block websites hosting JavaScript miners both at the gateway and the endpoints

2. Stop cryptomining malware at every point in the attack chain

3. Prevent cryptomining apps from running on your network

 

We also recommend that you:

 - Keep your devices patched to minimize the risk of exploit-related attacks

- Use mobile management technology to ensure that native mobile apps aren’t present on your mobile phones nor tablets

 

- Educate your team:

• Cryptomining is not an acceptable use of company resources or power

• Explain traditional attack vectors of malware such as phishing and how they can protect themselves Ì Maintain a strong password policy

 

- Keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs that you’ve been cryptojacked:

• Slow network

• Soaring electricity bill

• Spike in CPU consumption