More Than 4,000 Government Websites Infected With Covert Cryptocurrency Miner

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

The rise of cryptocurrency mining software like Coinhive has been a decidedly double-edged sword. While many websites have begun exploring cryptocurrency mining as a way to generate some additional revenue, several have run into problems if they fail to warn visitors that their CPU cycles are being co-opted in such a fashion. That has resulted in numerous websites like The Pirate Bay being forced to back away from the software after poor implementation (and zero transparency) resulted in frustrated users who say the software gobbled upwards of 85% of their available CPU processing power without their knowledge or consent.

But websites that don’t inform users this mining is happening are just one part of an emerging problem. Hackers have also taken to using malware to embed the mining software into websites whose owners aren’t aware that their sites have been hijacked to make somebody else an extra buck. Politifact was one of several websites that recently had to admit its website was compromised with cryptocurrency-mining malware without their knowledge. Showtime was also forced to acknowledge (barely) that websites on two different Showtime domains had been compromised and infected with Coinhive-embedded malware.

While Bloomberg this week proclaimed that governments should really get behind this whole cryptocurrency mining thing, the reality is that numerous governments already have — just not in the way they might have intended. Security researcher Scott Helme this week discovered that more than 4,000 U.S. and UK government websites — including the US court system website — have been infected with cryptocurrency mining malware, a number that’s sure to only balloon.

As Helme notes, attackers don’t need to even attack each website individually, as they’ve found a way to compromise shared resources like Text Help, whose modified script files were then loaded by thousands of websites at a pop:

Fortunately this attack isn’t particularly hard to neutralize, with a tiny modification to the share script being able to nip similar, future attacks in the bud. But Helme also notes that this entire kerfuffle could have been substantially worse:

Ultimately it seems like these kinds of attacks should be easy to avoid once site administrators and governments wise up to the rising threat. That said, reports by cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike have suggested things will get a little worse before they get better. Again though, the malware angle is just one conversation we need to be having. How sites can responsibly and transparently implement miners as an alternative revenue stream is going to be something we’ll be talking about for a while, as Salon made evident this week as the first website to offer the option as an alternative to traditional advertising.

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Companies: browsealoud, texthelp

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Comments on “More Than 4,000 Government Websites Infected With Covert Cryptocurrency Miner”

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26 Comments
Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Really like the idea of using some cycles to browse ad free. Just as long as I know about it before it starts.

This may very well be the new business model. You have four or eight or twelve cores, which probably spend most of their time sitting idle. If a site asks (nicely!) to use one in return for providing their services … could this become the new form of barter economy?

I can see Governments objecting because they can’t figure out how to tax it.

Christenson says:

Re: Proactive action

The first problem is that effective, complete control over a computer is rapidly becoming impossible. That fundamental, unsolved problem of malware infections means that even effective tribal action is nearly impossible.

Eventually, web browsers will need to limit the CPU “bleed” they give to websites so that the value of an undetected coin miner will be too small to amount to much.

Christenson says:

Re: Re: Re: The first problem is that effective, complete control over a computer is rapidly becoming impossible

Truly…how much of your linux system have you audited? And what about the “pre-boot environment”?

(Not that the problem isn’t at least an order of magnitude worse coming out of Microsoft — 30million lines of Kernel versus 1 million lines of Kernel, and legal hazards if you should analyze what comes from Redmond)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The first problem is that effective, complete control over a computer is rapidly becoming impossible

Truly…how much of your linux system have you audited?

A "modern" browser is actually bigger than most operating systems. Building Chromium or Webkit will take longer than everything they depend on put together (OS kernel, graphics stack etc.).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 A "modern" browser is actually bigger than most operating systems

… and links, elinks, and w3m, and Emacs must have a few. I sometimes use them, and like them, but most sites have way too much "junk" which makes the real content hard to find. Out of curiosity, I just tried Techdirt in Lynx, and it’s really good: the first link goes to a "Lite" version, which is perfect, and even the normal version isn’t bad (two pages of chuffah, then the story and comments, then some trailing stuff).

But CSS, images, and videos can make a site better, which I rarely say of Javascript (archive.org’s Internet Arcade is one of those rare exceptions, though I’ll personally still take a native emulator).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Proactive action

Would it be out of character for governments to now do something effective about these kinds of intrusions?

The obvious action would be to stop putting third-party scripts on their own sites. Maybe unless they lock it via cryptographic hashes so that sites can’t change the scripts from under them… but even then there are privacy concerns.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not "malware"

It’s not “malware” just because you don’t like it. There’s no evidence it was intended to harm anyone, and it probably didn’t (except for reduction of battery life, but lots of sites run CPU-wasting Javascript). It didn’t bypass any browser security controls, collect passwords, or anything like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Not "malware"

It was injected into servers where it did not belong. That’s malware.

1) That’s an unusual definition of malware. By that logic, Windows is malware because the computer I bought came with Windows when I didn’t want it. "Mal" in this case is an attribute of the person who dropped it, not the software itself.

2) We don’t know that anything was injected. The government was allowing third-parties to decide what code to send to users (and didn’t use subresource integrity to prevent changes), and one of them started to send this mining code. They’ve so far declined to explain what happened; they may have intentionally decided to enable this, to make some extra cash.

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