Companies Start to Use Customer CPU to Mine Cryptocurrencies, Without Consent

Companies Start to Use Customer CPU to Mine Cryptocurrencies, Without Consent

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Mining cryptocurrency has been a viable means for many people to make money. The foundation of coins as a decentralized system (aka blockchain) allows for increased security and privacy, less chance for technical failures, and gives coinholders more control and freedom over how to purchase and sell currencies. The relative ease of mining currencies has hit the mainstream finally it seems, as companies try to make revenue ends meet by using mining pools, which would be okay if they were actually disclosing it to the customers they're siphoning CPU off of.

 

Mining Pool Breakdown 

First off, we need to understand how it works. A mining pool is a group of people (with hardware) who agree to share coin payouts for contributing processing power to the pool of servers to aid in mining coins. There are many mining pools across the world, with most of the largest ones being housed in China. You shouldn't really jump into a mining pool without researching it first, as some may not be secure or trade in coins a user might not necessarily want. 

For example, Coinhive is a mining pool that lets businesses monetize their customer CPU by intregrating its javascript code into their websites and servers. They boast that the monetization of CPU power by embedding their code helps companies run sites without using ads (and not relying on ad revenue) and allowing them to offer in-game currency or rewards to their customers. Once the code is embedded, customers who visit the sites on those severs will be running the javascript and mining directly for Coinhive from their browser. The operator of the mining pool (in this case Coinhive) gets a percentage of all the coins mined, and the owner of the server (the business who embedded the code in their site) gets their cut as well. Coinhive mines and runs specifically with a cryptocurrency called Monero.

"We dream about it [Coinhive] as an alternative to micro payments, artificial wait times in online games, intrusive ads, and dubious marketing tactics." their website explains. 

 

Using Your CPU Without Your Consent

Reports of non-disclosed CPU usage for coin mining were around as early as this Forbes article back in 2013, when an online gaming company was charged $1MN in a class action lawsuit for using gamer's computers to mine for coins without any consent. The software not only mined coins when users weren't active on their PCs, it could access files, take screenshots, and monitor all computer activity. Somehow, a $1MN payout doesn't seem enough for this level of intrusion, but that is perhaps due to the fact that cryptocurrencies are still vastly unregulated; there's no one holding people accountable except harmed consumers. 

Torrent site The Pirate Bay earlier this month was also found by users to be running a Monero javascript miner. They released a blog post adressing the issue, "This is only a test. We really want to get rid of all the ads. But we also need enough money to keep the site running." the post says,  "Let us know what you think in the comments. Do you want ads or do you want to give away a few of your CPU cycles every time you visit the site?"

Users seemed generally okay with the system, forgoing some of their processing power if they didn't have to be inundated by ads. Plus they get all their content for free anyway since The Pirate Bay is an illegal torrenting site. Some were however concerned about the lack of disclosure. 

 


(credit: The Pirate Bay)

 

While The Pirate Bay came clean on its use of a mining script, the latest and non-illegal company to do so has said nothing on the matter. The Verge reported this week that Showtime (CBS) had been found by users to be running Coinhive's javascript miner in the background of showtime.com and showtimeanytime.com. When visitors went to those sites in their web browsers, they were unknowingly reliquishing their CPU power to Showtime so they could make money off mining Monero. 

While CBS and Showtime declined to comment on the matter, Coinhive released the following statement on their website:

"We're a bit saddened to see that some of our customers integrate Coinhive into their pages without disclosing to their users what's going on, let alone asking for their permission."

The Verge reports that Coinhive said it would now ask people permission to use their CPU (excess CPU usage causes computers to lag, freeze, or crash), but there are many different coin miners and many different cryptocurrencies that run these scripts, not just Coinhive. The code still seems to be running on Showtime's website showtimeanytime.com, and while media companies are having a hard time generating enough revenue from ads due to ad-blockers, lying to your customers to make some money doesn't really seem like the way to go about it. 

 

 

As cryptocurrencies come out of the shadows to mixed reactions we all will have to be dilligent in continuing to hold companies accountable for sketchy schemes to make a quick buck off of our data and time. Showtime would do well to come clean for its part in not properly disclosing the scripts, and others should not follow their example.

 

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