Cryptocurrency! It is a thing. At the moment, that’s about all that can be said on the subject of Bitcoin and pals. With the current boom and/or bubble in Bitcoin, any statement on cryptocurrency beyond “it exists” is doomed to the depths of grinding, pedantic Internet debate, plus the occasional crazy person shouting about it being a) our salvation; b) the downfall of the West; c) both.
Which sucks, because there’s something you need to know if you’re involved with web design, cryptocurrency, or just don’t like strangers futzing with your things. Hackers can swipe your computer’s processing power to mine cryptocurrency without your knowledge or consent.
By itself, cryptocurrency mining isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessary thing. Blockchains are distributed: they get the processing power they need to function from any available computers on their chains. As an incentive to keep processor cycles available, the computer that completes a given task receives a small bonus in the blockchain currency. “Mining” just means going out of your way to be that computer, typically by having as much processing power available as possible.
But in the glorious Age of the Cloud (which, protip, may not last much longer) “processing power” doesn’t always mean “giant wheezing plastic rectangle.” Finding novel sources for those sweet, sweet processor cycles is proving to be a smart way for lots of folks to monetize. Popular websites, for instance (we wrote about a rather notorious one) have already incorporated in-browser mining scripts into their business model. Their offer is that, instead of suffering through ads or big sad-eyed donation requests, users will be able to proffer a few otherwise unused processor cycles for cryptocurrency mining for as long as they’re on the page.
Alas and as always, clever ideas don’t only work for nice people. The black hat is here, and as ever, it will fill your digital life with fail.
Per Lifehacker, malicious miner scripts are becoming distressingly common. WIRED calls it “cryptojacking,” nefarious instructions added to the source code of websites without the owner’s knowledge, in order to harvest cryptocurrency on the backs of users. No informed consent, no warm glow in the knowledge that you’re both helping your favorite website and skipping your least favorite algorithmically generated YouTube ad. Just some gross code you can’t see, taking irritating little bites out of your computing experience. Grats, black hats: you’ve digitally recreated bedbugs.
To some degree, cryptojacking is yet another instance of the price of progress. In-browser miners show real promise as a new way to monetize web content, which is, to say the least, a fraught process at the moment. The fact that sketchy people want to steal money with it is, in its horrible way, a vote of confidence in in-browser mining and cryptocurrency generally. Thieves go where the money is, after all.
But one thing is sure – they are things. People like to have things, particularly when they’ve paid money for them. On that non-contentious point, I have terrifying news – oh my God(s) you guys people are taking your things.
Well. Sort of. They’re using your computer to mine cryptocurrency without your permission.
Before we get into it, I have a brief complaint to register. I was a 90s kid. I never got my jetpack or flying car, but I’m kind of OK with that. I’d just crash and die anyway. But I was promised better hackers.
These guys aren’t precisely stealing from you. What they’re doing is more like sneaking into your house while you sleep, booting up your computer, then just going nuts on Excel for 10 hours straight.
Here’s the deal.
People are making things like the things you have, and they’re doing it without permission. Cryptocurrency mining, whatever you may have heard to the contrary, is not in itself A Bad Thing. It’s just A Thing, a necessary component of blockchain technology: the necessary processing power gets distributed among interested parties. A few processor cycles here, a few there, and the ledger is sustainable.
That’s all “cryptocurrency mining” is: using multiple processors on a network to do the computing tasks necessary to maintain a cryptocurrency. “Cryptocurrency miners,” usually just “miners,” are people or organization who commit serious processing power to the cause.
So remember – if you don’t want sites using your computer power to earn cryptocurrency for themselves, get in on adblockers and NoCoin. Even though it’s really not a big deal (unlike my lack of a jetpack – I lied, I care).