Is In-Browser Mining a Good or Bad Use Case for Cryptocurrency?

You may not even know it, but the chances are that one of the websites you visited today using a browser may have used your phone or laptop to mine cryptocurrency. Mining of cryptocurrencies is not something that is new, even if the majority may not know how it is done or even heard about it.

Every cryptocurrency uses blockchain technology as its backbone. The blockchain is a ledger that records new transactions called as blocks. Whenever a new block is detected on the network, miners compete with each other and by using the proof of work concept try solving it. Miners are suitably paid in cryptocurrency as a reward. Mining bitcoin, or for that matter any other cryptocurrency, requires computational power.

When Bitcoin was launched in 2009, the early miners could mine bitcoin by using the computational power of their desktop or laptop. However, as more miners joined this network, they came with much better and more powerful CPUs. At one point, it was no longer profitable to mine bitcoin on home desktops. After that, certain specialized chips called ASICs were introduced to be used for mining.

Expensive chips also require more electricity consumption. Hence, mining cryptocurrencies are getting more expensive regarding energy. The problem has also resulted in a new dilemma, of how to get even more CPUs to increase the computational power for mining.

The Rise of In-browser Mining

As a monetization strategy, some developers decided to use your device’s processing capacity to mine cryptocurrencies. Some websites are now running JavaScript code in your web browser that enables them to run certain programs without the notice of the user. However, not all cryptocurrencies can be successfully mined on commonly found lesser powerful devices. Monero is the most popular cryptocurrency that is unlinkable, ASIC-resistant and completely reliant on CPU and GPU mining. Mining monero is fast and simple and does not require any dedicated computing power.

In September 2017, it was reported that Shownet websites were secretly using user CPU to mine cryptocurrencies. The websites were using a crypto mining JavaScript script known as Coinhive.

Coinhive was developed as a solution for websites to monetize their content without advertisements while also ensuring that revenue was not compromised. According to technology experts though, there are several agencies misusing this and mining monero on others devices without their knowledge.

Benefits and Costs of In-browser Mining

Karl Sigler, who is one of the tech security experts at Chicago’s Trustwave, warned, “What we’re seeing in that crypto jacking can actually raise the individual users’ electric bill to $3 to $5 a month just by visiting a website that is using this crypto mining. And that may not seem like a lot, but when we’re talking about large organizations or large enterprises that have maybe have 100s to 1000s of computers, each one of them if they hit a crypto jacking website, that can really add up a lot.” This in-browser crypto mining drains the battery as there’s a little piece of code in the background that actually steals your CPU processing power in order to create this digital currency for whoever owns the website.

In an interview, Coinhive founders acknowledged that ‘cryptojacking’ is here to stay for some time, further adding, “In hindsight, we were also quite naive in our assumptions on how the miner would be used. We thought most sites would use it openly, letting their users decide to run it for some goodies.” Contrary to that, websites are now mining cryptocurrencies using user CPUs without their knowledge or consent.

Of course, there are potential benefits to mining through your browser; Ber Kessels argues that if done as an opt-in scheme, in-browser mining is more desirable than compromising your privacy through ads, which extract your data for large corporations. Salon is the latest media site to utilize Coinhive’s miner, which gives users a choice between disabling their ad blocker or allowing your CPU to be used to mine monero.

In Kessels’ opinion, browsers like Brave have missed a huge opportunity that Coinhive seems to have latched onto. The Brave browser now takes the approach of ‘block them all’ which passes up many openings for overcoming privacy-degrading advertising, eliminating pop-ups requesting donations and being able to consume content from sites like Netflix for free by donating your computing power.

While Kessels is supportive of in-browser mining, he does state that the best path forward is to block malicious miners and done without the user’s consent, but simultaneously work closely with companies like Coinhive “to improve initiatives for the honest and friendly use cases.”

There are ways to find out if your device is being used for mining cryptocurrencies without your knowledge. But as Bail Bloc shows, in-browser mining could be here to stay, and the legitimate use cases should not be compromised because of the narrative that all in-browser mining is ‘evil.’

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