Monday, June 16, 2014

Illicit Bitcoin Mining: Prevention, Detection, and Response

Bitcoin mining and NSF computational resources have been in the news lately with the NSF OIG report for March 2014 (p. 29-30) reporting on a user of NSF-funded supercomputers using them illicitly to mine for over $8,000 in bitcoins. A similar story emerged regarding a student at Harvard. Additionally, a report from Iowa State reports intruders using a computer illicitly for bitcoin mining. (For more details about bitcoin mining, see the NSF-funded research from UCSD.)

Assuming you have made the decision to disallow bitcoin mining, addressing unauthorized bitcoin mining is a multi-phase process.

Educating your users that bitcoin mining isn’t allowed is a good first step. Make sure you have a clear acceptable use policy (AUP) that states what computing systems can and cannot be used for. For example, the IceCube AUP states that their resources “are intended to provide computing resources for analysis, processing and filtering, and simulation activities for the IceCube project.” Another, stronger approach is to explicitly ban bitcoin and other crypto-currency mining (for example, see the Heroku AUP).

Second, your users may still misbehave, or you may have unauthorized users compromise your system, so consider implementing rules for an intrusion detection system to detect the mining. Since bitcoin mining requires network traffic, monitoring network traffic can be effective. For example, bro_bitcoin is a module for Bro to detect bitcoin mining on the network.

Finally, consider procedures for what happens if you detect bitcoin mining and successfully mined bitcoins. This is an emerging area and there are no standard practices yet. However, an incident response plan should support effective response to this case, including who should be notified and involved given the fungible nature of bitcoins.

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