Nothing comes for free, especially online.
Websites and apps that don’t charge you for their services are often collecting your data or bombarding you with advertising. Now some sites have found a new way to make money from you: using your computer to generate virtual currencies.
Several video streaming sites and the popular file sharing network The Pirate Bay have allegedly been “cryptojacking” their users’ computers in this way, as has the free wi-fi provider in a Starbucks cafe in Argentina.
Users may object to this, especially if it slows down their computers. But given how hard it is for most companies to make money from online advertising, it might be something we have to get used to — unless we want to start paying more for things.
Units of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin aren’t created by a central bank like regular money but are generated or “mined” by computers solving complex equations.
Cryptojacking involves using someone’s computer without their knowledge, perhaps for just seconds at a time, to mine a cryptocurrency.
In the case of bitcoin, mining requires specialised hardware and consumes masses of energy. For example, each bitcoin transaction takes enough energy to boil about 36,000 kettles filled with water. In a year, the whole bitcoin mining network consumes more energy than Ireland.
But bitcoin is not the only show in town and there are many competing cryptocurrencies.
One of the most successful is Monero, which builds a degree of privacy into transactions (something bitcoin doesn’t do). Currently it requires no specialised hardware for mining, so anyone with computing power to spare can mine it.
Mining usually takes the form of a competition. Whichever computer solves the equation the fastest is rewarded with the money. With Moreno and other similar cryptocurrencies, a pool of computers can work together and share the reward if they win the competition.
This allows individual computers to work on just a small part of the mining task. The larger the pool, the more chance there is of winning the reward.
When a computer is cryptojacked, it is added to a pool to work on the task.
This means the website or internet provider doing the cryptojacking can mine cryptocurrency with little cost to themselves.
One estimate is that 220 of the top 1,000 websites in the world are conducting cryptojacking, making a total of $US43,000 over a three-week period.