Do You Understand Crypto?

CityLab tests your grasp of our virtual currency-filled future.

Last week, Wired reported that the infrastructure security firm Radifirm had identified the world’s first known “crypto-jacking” of an industrial control system: A hacker had evaded security scanners to install malware on a European water utility company’s network. For months, the malware had been running quietly in the background, allowing the hacker to harvest the digital currency Monero.

Using small amounts of otherwise wasted processing power isn’t fundamentally destructive, but “it still wears on and degrades processors over time,” writes Wired’s Lily Hay Newman. When a hacker crypto-jacks a cellphone, that’s inconvenient for an individual. But when the processor they’re degrading runs a water system or power grid, that might be catastrophic.

Radifirm caught the breach well before a problem arose, but attacks like this might increase in frequency. Demand for cryptocurrency continues to grow, and values, while volatile, are high.

So, how worried should we be about this? Here’s a (really) quick primer on what exactly we’re talking about. As financial advisers are happy to tell you, cryptocurrency is, essentially, nothingness: an entire financial system based on what people are willing to pay for pretend digital “coins.” And blockchain (the underlying technology that supports bitcoin, and many other cryptocurrencies) is very nearly the most boring thing in the world: a decentralized, online database that’s ostensibly safer and less corruptible than others.

Nevertheless, both terms have recently been applied to almost every conceivable product, industry, or human endeavor in an effort to attract funders, grab media attention, or just jazz them up. If you slap “The Blockchain” on your news startup, maybe you can resuscitate local news. Post all your content on the new blockchain-secured website and it’ll never be taken down by a disgruntled publisher-billionaire. Affix “crypto” on municipal bonds and suddenly everyone wants to support affordable housing. What’s next, a Japanese pop band dressed up as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple called “Virtual Currency Girls”? (Oh, word, they exist. Their first single is called “The Moon, Virtual Currencies, and Me.” It’s … sort of good!)

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