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Malicious Cryptocurrency Miners -The Zama-Zamas of the Web

This is a guest post article by Alex J. Coyne.

In some parts of southern Africa, you'll hear unauthorized miners sometimes referred to as "zama-zamas." 

The term describes miners who operate off the grid, often risking their lives to bring underground minerals back up to earth through makeshift or previously shut-down shafts, many of which will collapse on the way in or out.

Cryptocurrency means that mining - and certainly illegal mining - no longer must take place in the depths of the earth but can take place in cyberspace. The zama-zamas of the internet have already started to claim their part of the wealth, and now the biggest danger has changed from the collapse of a physical mineshaft to the collapse of any devices that have been hijacked to use as mining network. 

A device that suddenly overheats, loses battery life at a quicker rate and uses up too much space, data and resources where it was fine before might have become prey to an online illegal miner attack: Both phones and computers might be affected, and the person who owns the device is likely to be unaware that their devices are helping to enrich someone else. 

Here's what you should know about background malicious cryptocurrency mining and what's been done to counteract it.

A Quick Introduction to Cryptocurrency

A Quick Introduction to Cryptocurrency

If you are entirely new to the concept, the term "cryptocurrency" refers to a group of virtual currencies like Litecoin, Bitcoin and Ethereum which act (and fluctuate) independently from world currencies and reserve banks - giving them the unique definition of a "decentralized" form of currency.

Like stocks and foreign exchange funds, it can be bought and sold: But like a virtual mineral, it can also be mined from vast strings of available data by cryptocurrency miners.

What one Bitcoin is worth has reached record-heights, but their buying, selling and mining hasn't been without controversy or criticism.

Investors like Buffett have considered Bitcoin little more than a pipe-dream and warned against their use, and further criticisms of cryptocurrency and mining have pointed out the vast amounts of electricity used in mining a single coin as well as the illegal nature of what a great deal of bitcoin transactions are used for.

The Currency of the Dark Side

The Currency of the Dark Side

Many investors have chosen cryptocurrency to grow their money - but at the same time, many criminals have made the same switch.

Cryptocurrencies are naturally harder to track than real-life money transactions. 

This has led to everything from cases of blackmail using nude images and demands of cryptocurrency together with kidnappings and ransom demands in crypto. Scammers all over the world have also moved to preferring cryptocurrency over cash.

Many illegal transactions also get paid for in cryptocurrency rather than real money for this reason: If you need drugs or weapons on the world wide web or its dark web counterpart, it's increasingly likely that the transaction will be conducted in cryptocurrency.

World banks, reserve banks and financial regulatory authorities over the world have reacted, although not all instructions have shown the same view.

One of South Africa's largest banks (First National Bank - FNB) moved to shut down the accounts of several local cryptocurrency trading platforms, citing a review of the potential risk factors and lack of a proper regulatory framework for the responsible use of cryptocurrency as their reasons for the closure. (https://www.moneyweb.co.za/news/companies-and-deals/fnb-to-shut-down-cryptocurrency-platforms-bank-accounts/)

The Bank of England has taken a different stance entirely, announcing their intention to explore more options for the regulation and introduction of cryptocurrency into the country's banking system during 2020. (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/21/bank-of-england-to-consider-adopting-cryptocurrency)

The Qatar Financial Center (QFC) has issued a ban on cryptocurrency activities, and other countries such as Uzbekistan have also moved to outlaw their use due to the potential risks that could be associated with the use of crypto. https://cointelegraph.com/news/qatar-financial-centre-puts-blanket-ban-on-cryptocurrency-businesses

What is Mining? 

What is Mining?

"A cryptocurrency miner is an advanced calculator," says Bryan Turner, a data analyst for World Wide Worx and a writer for the gadget and tech industries. 

Simply, a cryptocurrency miner's job is "crunching vast amounts of encrypted strings into usable bits which can be sold at a later stage."

"It's called mining because the process is similar to that of mining gold: crushing vast amounts of ore to get to extractable gold." 

Bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency, was described by an internet enigma who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto in a now-infamous whitepaper document.

The document has become as famous as the original Hacker Manifesto, and it can even be bought in leather-bound versions accompanied by fan artwork. 

How Mining for Cryptocurrency Works

But how does it work? 

"As a crypto-miner progresses down the crypto-chain by solving computations, these computations get more complex (and slower to solve) if the hardware remains constant."

This evolutionary need, says Bryan, is what has made Bitcoin evolve from using CPU mining, to GPU (or Graphics Processing) mining and finally to ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) chip mining.

Why Phones Shouldn't Mine

Why Phones Shouldn't Mine

The truth behind the tech is that mobile falls short in processing and speed. Even voluntary mining using your own smartphone to mine your own money is not recommended.

"Phones are still extremely weak against the large players like Bitcoin, and users will most likely damage their phones by making them overheat than see actual money from mining."

While smaller cryptocurrencies might be viable for mobile mining, Bryan says that these currencies tend to scale so fast that it becomes unfeasible for smartphones to be mining - even if you are a voluntary tech-miner.

Of course, background miners can hijack the resources powering your device to mine cryptocurrencies on someone else's behalf - and the first thing you are likely to notice is the same side-effects for your device, including overheating.

Danger on the Horizon

One of the first things a background cryptocurrency miner can do to a device is force it into overheating and shorten its natural lifespan.

"When one has unauthorized crypto-mining malware running in the background, it makes the computer work overtime." He says that while pushing a computer to its limits isn't usually a problem, constant operation at higher capacities can become problematic.

"For example, this may cause the thermal paste between the processor and the coolant to dry out, making it more likely for a processor to overheat before its useful lifespan and, ultimately, causes the computer to break." 

The use of unauthorized background miners can affect both computers and mobile devices, and the user might not know it's there apart from a few signs of resource use.

Signs of Mobile Mining

Signs of Mobile Mining

You might have illegal malware mining on your mobile if there are any signs of...

  • Losing battery life
  • An overheating battery
  • Increased resource use 
  • Space constraints
  • Shortened overall battery life
  • Increased internet data usage
  • General device slowing
  • Eventual device shutdown
  • Sound familiar? 

Secure your device by running up-to-date antivirus software and staying away from any apps and links that aren't from official, reputable links and websites. Verify everything that you want to install, and resort to a regular virus scan as well as "resource check" under settings for your device to see how much processing power is in action.

If you have repeated issues with the same digital symptoms, it might be time to call a cybersecurity professional.

How Companies Are Securing You

"Most major cybersecurity firms like Kaspersky, F-Secure and Trend Micro have protection against these types of attacks on a desktop environment attack (i.e. an installed program.)" 

Bryan says that these companies also go further: Browser extensions are now available which can guard against the use of any cryptocurrency miners that might be hijacking your browser to crunch data. 

Firefox now includes an automatic crypto-miner blocking function by default.

If anyone suspects that someone or something has gotten past the protective measures and your phone might be roped into the network of miners, get a cybersecurity professional in to check.