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How Bitcoin could impact the cyber-threat landscape

27 Jan 2021

Article by Radware Emergency Response Team information security researcher Daniel Smith.
 

Over the past decade, Bitcoin has evolved from a proof-of-concept where early adopters used the currency for illicit activities on darknet marketplaces, to a legitimately traded commodity.

Today a single Bitcoin is worth around $US38,000, compared to a year ago when its value was less than $10,000. Two years ago it was worth less than $4,000 and five years ago below $500 a coin.

To put this into a cyber-criminal perspective, back in 2015 the original Armada Collective, a ransom denial of service (RDoS) threat group, conducted extortion-based campaigns demanding 20 Bitcoins, roughly $6,000 at the time, from their victims. Today, 20 Bitcoins would be worth nearly $760,000.

Legally, Bitcoin has made many people richer than their wildest fantasies. The escalating valuation has also made some criminal organisations and malicious individuals very wealthy. The impact of this growth in wealth may have a severe impact on the future threat landscape.

Cybercriminals’ growth in wealth from Bitcoin isn’t exclusive to RDoS groups. But almost all cyber-criminals, from ransomware operators to cryptojackers, are profiting enormously from the rise in Bitcoin’s value.

One Bitcoin revenue stream that stands out is cryptomining. This is the legal process of earning cryptocurrencies by solving cryptographic equations, validating blocks through a computer or a mining rig. Serious crypto miners typically build large mining rigs with either GPU cards or ASIC devices. They will leverage these devices and their power to validate blocks on the blockchain ledger for a payment in return.

Typically, a mined block is worth a few Bitcoins between all the miners in a given pool and the supply of Bitcoin is limited to 21 million coins. Currently, there are 18.6 million in circulation. Once miners have unlocked all the bitcoins, the pool will be exhausted, and the value of Bitcoin will naturally rise even higher.

But malicious activity surrounds Bitcoin. While cryptomining is a legal activity, the money involved will drive many to bend the rules for an advantage or break the law for profit.

For example, to build these massive mining rigs, one is required to buy dozens of GPUs. GPUs are extremely difficult to buy because the demand for the hardware, GPUs and ASICs used to mine cryptocurrency has skyrocketed in lockstep with the price of Bitcoin.

The market to buy these devices alone has become so competitive that some are now using bots, a grey technique, to automate the process of checking e-commerce stores for availability and purchasing the hardware if an item is in stock.

This isn’t necessarily a crime – vendors get paid, users get devices, but the use of bots does present an unfair advantage against other customers attempting to purchase the same device manually. For reference, these are the same type of e-commerce bots that we see plaguing the entertainment, fashion, and airline industries.

A cryptojacking primer

Another example of malicious activity surrounding cryptomining is cryptojacking.

This is cryptomining, but it is the illegal process of earning cryptocurrencies by solving cryptographic equations with hijacked computer resources. The strategy affords attackers the ability to avoid acquiring dozens of devices or pay hefty electricity bills.

The first example is web-based cryptojacking — maliciously mining cryptocurrency through a victim’s browsers. Web-based cryptojacking has mostly come and gone in the past few years. Still, during its heyday, services such as Coinhive were leveraged by criminals to mine cryptocurrency via victims’ browsers after they visited a compromised website.

The other example of cryptojacking is file base. This attack vector is still alive and kicking in the overall threat landscape. File base cryptojacking is the act of compromising a device in order to download and deploy payloads designed to mine cryptocurrency. Some recent examples include DDG, Fritzfrog, and Xanthe.

While some reports in the past have suggested there are limited profits involved with cryptojacking, most did not consider the long-term valuation and yield of these crimes if the criminals were holding cryptocurrency long-term rather than selling them immediately.

If profits were nominal as reported, we wouldn’t see the number of mining-based campaigns that we do today. In fact, the competition is so dense in file-based cryptojacking that most malicious cryptominers contain hundreds of code lines designed to identify and kill specific processes or competitive malware on targeted devices.

While the rise in Bitcoins’ valuation doesn’t benefit those tardy to the party immediately, they will likely benefit in the long term. With Bitcoin’s market cap nearing $1 trillion this year, everyone has to begin to seriously consider the legitimacy of Bitcoin and its long-term projections.

For example, JPMorgan suggested recently that Bitcoin prices could surge to $146,000 in the long term. This means that criminals who are just getting into financial-related crime stand to incur a windfall of profit as the value of Bitcoin continue to rise.

Unfortunately, this projected growth in the value of Bitcoin will likely have a devastating effect on the threat landscape. It’s entirely possible that simple criminal organisations today could grow to have the wealth and capability to outspend even the best-funded security firms in the future. 

Moreover, this growth in value will likely inspire more criminals to get involved in financially motivated cyber-crime now so they too can profit.

The rise in Bitcoins value presents an elevated risk for a more financially motivated threat landscape in the future.