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Issue #772: May 8-14, 2022

Q: Thank you for putting on Geek Lights again. It was very enjoyable as usual, and I’m sure the gift to CALM that you facilitated will do much good to provide new starts for mothers in need.  Thank you for your column. I have heard/read that one of the things hackers can do with a hackee’s computer is “mine bitcoins”. Would you explain what that means? I don’t have a good understanding of cryptocurrency. (This is just a curiosity question, so if others have real problems they are asking about, answer theirs first). If you have covered this recently, my apologies.

– Phil W.
Niceville, Florida

A:  Well first, thanks for all the kind words about my light show and the column.  Neither are money-makers for me, so we just consider them part of being in service to people.  It might interest you to know that the column started in 2007 and the light show in 2008, so they are both fairly well-established activities.  This is issue #772 of IGTM, and the show will have its 15th season this Christmas.  And yes, like I’m always telling fans, we work on the show year-round, and work is currently in-progress.

Now, on to your question!  It sounds like a little primer on cryptocurrency is in order before you will be able to fully understand the answer.  First of all, the term cryptocurrency or simply crypto refers to an ever-growing number of types of digital currency – that is to say, a medium of exchange (money) that does not rely on any centralized government or other authority or even a bank, to issue, uphold and maintain its value.  One of the things that sets cryptocurrency apart from traditional money is that crypto typically does not exist in physical form.  Rather, it works through a distributed ledger technology, typically blockchain which serves as a public financial transaction database.  Bitcoin was the first of these decentralized cryptocurrencies, having been released as open-source software in 2009.  Since then, the number of cryptocurrencies has increased rapidly, and as of this writing, stands at nearly 1,600.  As an aside, that’s more than the count of all of the more traditional currencies of the rest of the world, so it’s a force to be reckoned with, and isn’t going away any time soon.

Your question refers to Bitcoin mining which is the process by which new Bitcoin (or any other cryptocurrency) enters circulation, and also the way new transactions are confirmed.  This so-called mining is usually performed using sophisticated hardware to solve highly complex mathematical problems.  The first computer that finds the solution to the problem receives the next block of Bitcoin, and the process starts all over again.

The mathematical problems that must be solved to earn a Bitcoin reward aren’t simple little multiplication or division problems.  They are highly sophisticated and complex mathematical problems that require supercomputer-level processing power to complete.  You also have to understand that there may be hundreds, or even thousands of other miners making the attempt, and the prize will only go to the first one who completes the validation process.  So, it takes both a substantial amount of computing horsepower and more than just a little luck to be successful at cryptocurrency mining.  For many, even making the attempt has become unprofitable, since the cost of mining exceeds the value of the mined coins. The difficulty is measured in “hashes per second” of the validation transaction.  This hash rate represents that rate at which solving the problem is occurring.  As if that’s not complicated enough, the difficulty changes as more miners make the attempt, because the network is designed to produce a set number of Bitcoin over time.  The more miners there are, the more difficult it is to ensure that the number of coins produced remains the same.

I know that’s a lot to take in, and perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.  But I think it gets us to the answer to your question, of why a hacker would want to use your computer to help them to mine Bitcoin?  The answer is that in order to avoid the cost of the hardware required to execute the massive complex math involved, hackers have developed a way to split the problem into smaller problems, then farm them out to hacked machines across the Internet.  Each computer works on a tiny piece of the overall problem, then returns the result.  It’s a complex thing to pull off, but once its working, each new computer that a hacker can add to his distributed computing network increases his chances of getting crypto.

Distributed computing isn’t a new concept.  From 1999 to 2020, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project at UC Berkely ran a popular distributed computing program called SETI @ Home.  It allowed anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to donate time on their PC to help search the massive amount of data generated by radio telescopes for signs of intelligent life.  Sadly, the project was deemed too labor-intensive, and put into hibernation.  We can only hope the hackers come to the same conclusion and leave their hands off our PCs in the future.    

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