A new type of cyber crime is on the rise in the UK which sees attackers take over victims’ devices in order to steal and mine crypto.
Global ransomware attacks doubled to 623m incidents in 2021 with some 91.7m crypto jacking incidents taking place, up by almost a fifth compared to the previous year according to a new report from cyber security company SonicWall.
In the UK the rise in crypto jacking was particularly pronounced with over 436,000 attacks taking place last year, up by 564 per cent compared to 2020 when under 66,000 incidents were reported.
Bill Conner, chief executive of SonicWall and a former advisor to GCHQ, said that crypto jacking has become more common amid the rise of working from home, which creates additional attack points for hackers, and the increasing value of crypto currencies, which swelled to become a £2.6tn asset class last year.
“This new boundless world where we’re all working from home opens up the attack surface because most people use VPN. If hackers gain access to that endpoint, they’re going to traverse your network at home and have capabilities to control that,” Conner said, explaining that hackers can quickly gain access to all the devices connected to a single wifi network.
When hackers gain access to devices, they can harvest computing power to mine crypto currency covertly while also scouring phones and laptops for account details which will let them access crypto wallets.
“Once you get into those networks, you can harvest a lot of compute power,” Conner said. “The hackers are able to go around in your phone, in your apps, in your computers, and they’re harvesting your intellectual capability as well as your IDs which they use that to get your crypto.”
While some crypto jacking malware has wormlike abilities, meaning it can spread across networks, it can also be spread through phishing attempts with malicious links and maladvertising. Although it can be hard to spot that a device has been hacked, Conner said that victims of crypto jacking tend to notice a significant decline in the performance of their devices.
The Sonicwall report further revealed that ransomware attacks in the UK, which typically involve hackers holding a victim’s data hostage and demanding a sum in crypto to secure its release, are also surging with 33.5m incidents recorded in 2021, a year-on-year increase of 277 per cent. Conner said that crypto is particularly well suited for such crimes because assets are “going up in value generically,” “relatively anonymous” and easily tradable.
These qualities also make crypto attacks a useful tool for state actors. A recent United Nations report raised the alarm about state sanctioned ransomware attacks, claiming that North Korean hackers have been stealing millions of dollars worth of crypto assets to fund the country’s nuclear missile programme.
“In some certain countries, the difference between organised crime and an organised state is not clear cut,” said Conner.
Amid growing concerns about the interrelationship between cyber and national security US President Joe Biden allocated $2bn to improving cyber infrastructure in November 2021. Conner also stressed the importance of international collaboration to tackle the rising tide of cyber crime.
“There is no boundary condition in the internet right for the bad guys, so it’s really important we see collaboration between the UK and US,” he said.