The Rise of ‘Cryptominers’ and Why You Need to Be Wary of Them

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Over the past few months we’ve devoted a post or two to rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and how they’re still worth taking note of despite the fact they haven’t ‘taken off’ quite like people expected them to. Different people have different takes on whether they will ever become a legitimate player on the global currency scene, but we believe that there is in fact going to be a demand for currencies that are not internationally regulated by any specific bodies and can be uniform from one country / currency to the next.

Here at 4GoodHosting, we’re a leading Canadian web hosting provider who also takes a keen interest in developments in the digital world. That’s likely a hallmark of any good provider –staying on top of trends and the like and choosing the most relevant ones to share with their customers.

Right then, let’s continue.

Not-So-Harmless Browsing

It would seem that Internet ads are now the least of your concerns when it comes to annoyances. Recent news indicates that the websites you visit could now be prompting your computer to do what’s called ‘cryptocurrency mining.’ So with an existing understanding of what a cryptocurrency is, we now need to ask what exactly cryptocurrency mining is.

The entirety of the creation, management, conversion, and transaction of digital currencies demands a lot of computing power. Each block of transactions involves computer owners around the globe racing to solve a very challenging cryptographic puzzle, and winning means you get paid in the relevant cryptocurrency. Contestants, known as “miners”, up their chances by building up their processing capacity. Most commonly this is done by building server farms in remote locations where electricity is cheap, but they are always searching for inexpensive ways to mine for cryptocurrencies more effectively.

Conversely, website publishers are always on the hunt for new ways to generate revenue. The standard means – subscriptions, ads, etc. are often insufficient. They don’t have much appeal for most users, can be hijacked, and the big search engines like Google typically take their cut of revenues.

So increasingly these days they are resorting to an unscrupulous approach. They’re offering miners access to the computing power of the people who visit their sites, and then selling it to them.

Browsers Gone Bad

Here’s how this whole seedy transaction works. Say, for example, you go to a site to download some free stock images. As your web browser loads the first page, it also initiates a script that prompts your computer’s processor to undertake calculations for a cryptocurrency miner. That miner could be located anywhere. The only thing that might make you aware of it is a slightly slower computer, and a slightly higher power bill. The miner pays the website publisher for the use of your resources, and you’re kept in the dark about it.

Now we have to say that reputable web publishers will not hijack your computer for profit. It’s sites that haven’t been successful with traditional ad networking (many are in China) who have embraced browser-based mining as a popular revenue stream. Regrettably, at this time there’s little to stop them from doing it, and little in the way of means of blocking them from doing so.

The concept of capturing value from underutilized computer resources isn’t a new one. It actually goes back to the early days of the web. In the late ‘90s a team at the University of California, Berkeley, built the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. It was a software system that took the spare capacity on personal computers and re-dedicated it to scientific purposes. Some of you may remember SETI@home, its most famous application – a screensaver that contributed to the hunt for signs of alien life in radio signals. SETI@home has since aided with climate prediction, drug discovery, protein folding, and many other applications. More than 300,000 users actively participate with it today, and not surprisingly that makes it the largest computing grid in the world.

Doing What They Will

You might think it is, but this type of distributed computing isn’t always cost-effective. Cloud computing would be a much better choice for the type of application suggested above and many others. With browser-based mining, however, visitors are compensating publishers with their computer resources and energy consumption. With the latter part of that comes an involvement with local utility providers in each transaction. Yes, they’d get a better deal by just paying a few cents per page view, but that’s something else altogether.

The Internet has made it quite clear that micropayments don’t work very well, in large part because the decision-making costs associated with each transaction outweigh the actual value transfer. As a result, the most viable kind of internet payment is one that doesn’t look like a payment at all. Keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of volunteers happily donated their computing power to SETI@home because it felt costless, even though it consumed $8 of energy each month. Ad-based models have become the default method because users don’t consciously attach a dollar value to their attention and data.

So while it does occur and is problematic, there’s no debating that in-browser cryptocurrency mining is an inefficient way of paying for content. It’s not clear that users will be accepting of the appropriation of resources, but if you like at it from the other perspective it’s potentially less invasive than targeted advertising. Which is creepy for many people and takes advantage of underutilized processor resources.

Make Smart Browser / Interactivity Choices

No one’s sounding the alarm regarding cryptocurrency mining, but it’s still a growing trend and you certainly don’t want to have yourself as a prime candidate for these leeches. Be smart about the sites you visit, but more importantly be selective about the way you interact them. We won’t go as far as to say to be wary of the site’s seeming source of origin, but if you’re particularly concerned you may want to take this into account too.

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