A security researcher has discovered thousands of legitimate websites — many belonging to local governments and government agencies — running scripts that secretly force visitors’ computers to mine cryptocoins.
In the UK, both the websites of the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Student Loan Company have found to be affected. The mining scripts were also found on the websites of the General Medical Council and NHS Inform.
On the other side of the pond, the websites belonging to the Indiana Government and the US courts system were also discovered to be running the CoinHive mining software.
The issue stems from a piece of software called BrowseAloud, which is embedded on all affected sites. BrowseAloud offers accessiblity services, assisting those with literaracy or visual impairments to access government services and information.
There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the aforementioned sites, nor TextHelp (the owner of BrowseAloud).
It appears that at some point on Sunday, an unknown third-party modified BrowseAloud to covertly inject the CoinHive mining software. TextHelp has since withdrawn the BrowseAloud plugin while it addresses the issue.
Cryptojacking is a problem most commonly associated with the seedier aspects of the Internet. Some sites often struggle to attract typical advertisers: like those in the porn and file sharing spaces. In order to keep the lights on, they instead resort to using their visitor’s spare CPU power to mine cryptocoins.
On one hand, cryptojacking is less visibly intrusive than traditional advertising. That’s not much off a defense though, and it comes with several major downsides.
Users with these scripts running find their computers inexplicably slower. Their machines might also run hot. If they’re on a mobile device, battery life will be adversely affected.
It’s pretty astonishing to see cryptojacking scripts running on legitimate government webpages. In this case, security researchers identified the issue quickly.
The biggest takeaway from this episode is that, no matter your browsing habits, cryptojacking is a threat you should protect yourself from.