Hackers take to illicit coin mining as cryptocurrency fever soars

22 Mar 2018

Image: SPF/Shutterstock

Skilled hackers and cryptojackers see cryptocurrency fever as the new gold rush, with really low barriers to entry.

Cyber-criminals are rapidly adding cryptojacking skills to their arsenal and creating a highly profitable new revenue stream from coin mining, according to the 2018 Internet Security Threat Report from infosec giant Symantec.

The 23rd volume of the Symantec annual threat report reveals that in 2017 alone, detections of coin mining increased 44,000pc in the UK, the fifth-highest number of such detections worldwide.

‘The massive profit incentive puts people, devices and organisations at risk of unauthorised coin miners siphoning resources from their systems’

The UK was also the fourth-highest source of bot infections in Europe, jumping from 11th place in 2016.

Software supply chain attacks were up 200pc globally, with attackers hijacking software updates to compromise well-guarded networks.

Jacking up the coin trade

When it comes to cryptojacking attacks, hackers have found ways to untie the purse strings of gullible punters amid all the speculation on bitcoin and initial coin offers (ICOs).

During the past year, an astronomical rise in cryptocurrency values triggered a cryptojacking gold rush, with cyber-criminals attempting to cash in on a volatile market.

Detections of coin miners on endpoint computers increased by 8,500pc in 2017.

“Cryptojacking is a rising threat to cyber and personal security,” said Mike Fey, president and COO, Symantec.

“The massive profit incentive puts people, devices and organisations at risk of unauthorised coin miners siphoning resources from their systems, further motivating criminals to infiltrate everything from home PCs to giant data centres.”

With a low barrier of entry – only requiring a few lines of code to operate – cyber-criminals are harnessing stolen processing power and cloud CPU usage from consumers and enterprises to mine cryptocurrency.

Coin miners can slow devices, overheat batteries and, in some cases, render devices unusable. For enterprise organisations, coin miners can put corporate networks at risk of shutdown as well as inflate cloud CPU usage, adding cost.

“Attackers could be co-opting your phone, computer or IoT device to use them for profit,” said Darren Thomson, CTO and EMEA VP at Symantec. “People need to expand their defences or they will pay the price for someone else using their device.”

Symantec also found a 600pc increase in overall internet of things (IoT) attacks in 2017, which means that cyber-criminals could exploit the connected nature of these devices to mine en masse.

Macs are not immune either, with Symantec detecting an 80pc increase in coin-mining attacks against macOS. By leveraging browser-based attacks, criminals do not need to download malware to a victim’s Mac or PC to carry out cyberattacks.

Ireland sees dramatic rise in malware

In 2017, Ireland ranked sixth globally for malware attacks – a dramatic 48pc increase on the country’s global ranking in 2016.

According to Symantec, Ireland accounted for 0.9pc of global malware detections in 2017 compared to 0.2pc in 2016.

The country ranked 29th globally for cyber threats, going up 12 positions (41st in 2016); in Europe, Ireland was ranked 11th.

Ransomware attacks significantly declined, with Ireland now ranking 67th globally, compared to its position (41st) in 2016. This is the result of ransom demands increasing in past years to the point where victims of ransomware attacks stopped paying hackers.

In return, cyber-criminals are moving to coin mining as their go-to approach for money-making, and Ireland ranked 19th in Europe for such attacks.

Top Irish industries targeted by malware, spam and phishing were mining, retail, wholesale trade, construction and manufacturing.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years