What is Crypto Jacking?

Crypto jacking (also called malicious cryptomining) is an emerging online threat that hides on a computer or mobile device and uses the machine’s resources to “mine” forms of online money known as cryptocurrencies. It’s a growing menace that can take over web browsers, as well as compromise all kinds of devices, from desktops and laptops, to smart phones and even network servers.

Like most other malicious attacks on the computing public, the motive is profit, but unlike many threats, it’s designed to stay completely hidden from the user. To understand the mechanics of the threat and how to protect yourself against it, let’s begin with a bit of background.

Cryptocurrencies are forms of digital money that exist only in the online world, with no actual physical form. They were created as an alternative to traditional money, and gained popularity for their forward-looking design, growth potential, and anonymity. One of the earliest, most successful forms of cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, came out in 2009. By December 2017, the value of a single bitcoin had reached an all-time high of nearly $20,000 USD, then dropped below $10,000. Bitcoin’s success inspired dozens of other cryptocurrencies that operate in more or less the same way. Less than a decade after its invention, people all over the world use cryptocurrencies to buy things, sell things, and make investments.

Units of cryptocurrency (called “coins”) are nothing more than entries in a database. In order to perform a transaction that alters the database, one must meet certain conditions. Think of how you track your own money in a bank account. Whenever you authorize transfers, withdrawals, or deposits, the bank’s database updates with your new transactions. Cryptocurrencies work in a similar way, but with a decentralized database.

Unlike traditional currencies, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin aren’t backed by a specific government or bank. There is no government oversight or central regulator of cryptocurrency. It is decentralized and managed in multiple duplicate databases simultaneously across a network of millions of computers that belong to no one person or organization. What’s more, the cryptocurrency database functions as a digital ledger. It uses encryption to control the creation of new coins and verify the transfer of funds. All the while, the cryptocurrency and its owners remain completely anonymous.

The decentralized, anonymous nature of cryptocurrencies means there is no regulating body that decides how much of the currency to release into circulation. Instead, the way most cryptocurrencies enter circulation is through a process called “cryptocurrency mining.” Without going too in depth, the mining process essentially turns computing resources into cryptocurrency coins. At first, anyone with a computer could mine cryptocurrency, but it quickly turned into an arms race. Today, most miners use powerful, purpose-built computers that mine cryptocurrency around the clock. Before long, people started to look for new ways to mine cryptocurrency, and cryptojacking was born. Instead of paying for an expensive mining computer, hackers infect regular computers and use them as a network to do their bidding.

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