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Browser-based cryptocurrency mining activity exploded in the last few months of After many years of deathly silence, the catalyst appears to be the launch of a new browser-based mining service in September by Coinhive. This service wraps everything up nicely in an easy-to-use package for website owners and has injected new life into an idea that was long thought of as dead and buried.
Browser-based mining, as its name suggests, is a method of cryptocurrency mining that happens inside a browser and is implemented using scripting language. This is different compared to the more widely known file-based cryptocurrency mining approach which involves downloading and running a dedicated executable file.
The big difference is that back in BitcoinPlus. Back in , before the advent of ASIC mining in , Bitcoin was still in its infancy, mining difficulty was relatively low, and cryptocurrency prices were even lower.
It was just about possible to do some mining with home-grade hardware. Even though it was possible at that time to mine for Bitcoin via BitcoinPlus. The reward was minuscule compared to the amount of mining power and electricity required.
Due to this fundamental profitability problem with browser-based mining, it soon withered away. The growing problem of profitability was made even worse by the increasing use of ASIC miners. The advent of ASIC miners dragged bitcoin mining out of the realm of home users and into an industrial age dominated by the massive mining farms that we are more familiar with today.
Fast forward to September , the cryptocurrency landscape compared with had changed drastically. The market for cryptocurrency was extremely limited and illiquid, meaning that even if you got some, it was not easy to turn it back into fiat currency for spending.
Together with the diversity of coins to choose from in , there was also now a diversity of coin reward mechanisms. It's against this backdrop that Coinhive released its browser-mining scripts designed to mine Monero, effectively bringing the idea of browser-based mining back from the dead. Coinhive is marketed as an alternative to browser ad revenue. The motivation behind this is simple: Users hopefully then get a cleaner, faster, and potentially less risky website remember malvertising? What could go wrong?
Soon after the release of the Coinhive service, the hash rate for the service started to climb, and quickly too. Hashing is the process of carrying out cryptographic hash calculations which are used to help process transactions. Miners who participate in a mining pool get paid a share of income generated by the pool. The Coinhive pool reached just over five percent of that total which is quite an achievement in such a short time.
However, the idea was once again revived in December by a group of MIT students in a project called Tidbit—ostensibly touted as an alternative way for website owners to raise revenue. According to one early adopter, the revenue generated by his particular site was far lower than the revenue generated from ads. In fairness to Coinhive, it recommends being transparent with site visitors and that website owners notify users of the mining that will be taking place and, better still, offer users a way to opt in.
The first high-profile site to start using Coinhive mining was The Pirate Bay torrent website. The Pirate Bay has had a checkered history and, being a highly trafficked site global ranking with million visitors in the last six months , has been looking for alternative ways to monetize its considerable traffic.
Its initial attempts at browser mining were quickly spotted by users and they were not too happy about it. At least in the case of The Pirate Bay, this was a case of the site's owners making a decision to use Coinhive. The Pirate Bay's initial attempts at browser mining were quickly spotted by users and they were not too happy about it.
One of the Showtime sites affected was its content streaming site which has high traffic and user sessions are lengthy as visitors stay on the site while content is streaming. Showtime is a premium-based service so it would seem strange that users are made to pay twice for content. The scripts were promptly removed after they were discovered, suggesting that they were planted there maliciously.
Reports of many other sites using the Coinhive mining scripts soon followed. Over the Thanksgiving holiday in the U. As with Showtime, LiveHelpNow is already a legitimate revenue-generating business and there's no obvious reason as to why it would risk user confidence to earn a few extra bucks from users. So the most likely scenario is that the server was compromised either by an outsider, or even an insider. There are many reasons why browser-based mining is back with a vengeance.
Unlike in previous failed attempts, recent developments in the cryptocurrency and threat landscapes have made this a much more viable activity. Let's have a look at some of these factors in more detail:.
Privacy is important if you want to mine coins maliciously, in order to ensure others cannot easily follow the money trail back to you. Monero, which came to the market in , can offer a high level of transaction privacy. Unlike with most other cryptocurrencies that use public transparent blockchains where transaction addresses can be easily viewed by anyone, Monero does things differently. By default, everything is private, including the amount in a transaction, who sent it, and who received it.
There is an option with which wallet owners can selectively reveal some information via what's called a view key , but this is not a feature that cyber criminals are likely to want to use. As mentioned earlier, Coinhive provides a very neat and easy-to-use package for people to get involved in Monero mining. All you have to do is add a few lines of script to your website code. You don't have to make website visitors download and install executable files. The Pirate Bay was soon followed by another high-profile site—this time Coinhive's miner was found on two of Showtime's websites.
With browser-based mining, the cost of mining is borne mostly by the website visitors through hardware wear and tear as well as energy costs. Scale is achieved by using high-traffic sites with sticky content.
Coinhive currently pays 0. The user would have to spend 3, seconds on the site, or roughly 55 minutes, in order to achieve a million hashes. However, if you can get 3, users to spend approximately one second each on the site it would achieve a similar result. Even under optimal conditions, the amount of hashes produced in each instance will be small, but when it comes to distributed computing power, it's all about scale and every little bit adds up.
As we noted earlier, the value of mining rewards are not great, at least not initially. To get a better understanding, we need to look at the profitability of this activity over the longer term and take in the macroeconomic picture to get a true sense of the reward. The value of cryptocurrencies like Monero is going up dramatically. Under these circumstances where the price of Monero can go up substantially in dollar terms over a relatively short time, mining Monero can become an attractive proposition.
A small amount of Monero mined today could potentially be worth a great deal more in a matter of months conversely it could also drop significantly depending on the health of the overall cryptocurrency economy. Mirroring the rising interest and price of cryptocurrency, we have also seen a big jump in our detections of both file- and browser-based cryptocurrency mining activity in recent months.
Malicious cryptocurrency mining isn't just confined to desktop computers and servers. Always-connected mobile devices are also a growing target. We have even seen growth in coin mining on mobile phones in recent years. In , we discovered 26 different Android apps that were mining cryptocurrencies.
So far in we have found 35, which is around a 34 percent increase. But cryptocurrency mining is always an energy-intensive activity so the biggest problem facing mobile mining is of course battery drain as battery technology has not progressed as fast as processing power. Mobile mining will inevitably be noticed by the heat generated and the fast-draining battery, not to mention any performance impacts that it may also have on the device.
If we consider the cryptocurrency market as whole, we can see that just as the total value of cryptocurrencies increased manifold during the year, interest in malicious mining activity, both browser- and executable-based as indicated by detections of malicious mining activity, increased in tandem with it. As interest increases, more participants, both as miners and tool makers, join the fray. Coinhive, while being the best known at this time, doesn't have the market to itself.
Similar projects like Crypto Loot are cropping up, and other browser mining projects like JSEcoin have been in beta since August and are trying to generate growth in this activity. Symantec has observed a significant jump in all cryptocurrency mining activity in recent months as evidenced in our increasing detection rate See Figures 4 and 5.
Despite the genuine aspirations of most browser mining projects to offer a real and potentially better alternative to traditional web revenue generation methods, the sad reality is, it can and is being misused. Increasing user awareness and detection by security vendors will trigger a new arms race between cyber criminals and defenders. We can expect to see adoption of a wide range of traditional malware propagation and evasion techniques to help spread and prolong mining activity in order to maximize profit.
For as long as the current enabling factors are in place making it favorable for mining, we can expect to see interest in browser mining to be sustained or even increase in the short to medium term. Symantec is keeping a watchful eye on the growing trend of browser mining. We are making adjustments as necessary to prevent unwanted cryptocurrency miners from stealing your computing resources to enrich others. Website owners should watch for injection of the browser-mining scripts into their website source code.
Our network solutions can help you spot this in the network traffic as your server communicates with visitors. In addition, file system scans can also show up any files where the browser-based miner code has been injected, enabling you to identify and clean up the content. Symantec helps prevent others from stealing your computing resources by protecting various stages of the attack chain:.
All mining software, whether it is file- or browser-based, must be able to connect to either the cryptocurrency network or a mining pool to exchange data, in other words its proof-of-work. Without this connection, it cannot get the data it needs to generate hashes, rendering it useless. We can also block the mining scripts from being downloaded in the first instance.
Our network protection operates on our endpoint solutions as well as our gateway and cloud touch points; all these solutions help build a solid defense against unwanted mining activity. Here are some of the network protection signatures geared towards detection of browser-based mining:.
Our endpoint solutions, including those for mobile devices, can detect and block all types of mining activity whether they are file-based or in-browser.