Cryptocurrency mining can be an expensive proposition, requiring computing hardware and electricity. Cryptojacking offers cybercriminals a way to steal computing power from other people to bypass the effort and expense. Cryptojacking software operates on computers in the background, with the only evidence of its presence signified by a user’s device overheating or slowing down.
No one was more surprised than the miners themselves. By the end of 2017, even with the rapidly rising difficulty, the per-bitcoin cost for basin miners was around $2,000, producing profit margins similar to those of the early years, only on a vastly larger scale. Marc Bevand, a French-born computer scientist who briefly mined in the basin and is now a tech investor, estimates that, by December, a hypothetical investor who had built a 5-megawatt mine in the basin just four months earlier would’ve recovered the $7 million investment and would now be clearing $140,000 in profit every 24 hours. “Nowadays,” he told me back in December, miners “are literally swimming in cash.”
More fundamentally, miners argue that the current boom is simply the first rough step to a much larger technological shift that the basin would do well to get into early on. “What you can actually do with the technology, we’re only beginning to discover,” Salcido says. “But the technology requires a platform.” And, he says, as the world discovers what the blockchain can do, the global economy will increasingly depend on regions, like the basin, with the natural resources to run that platform as cheaply as possible.
To cut through some of the confusion surrounding bitcoin, we need to separate it into two components. On the one hand, you have bitcoin-the-token, a snippet of code that represents ownership of a digital concept – sort of like a virtual IOU. On the other hand, you have bitcoin-the-protocol, a distributed network that maintains a ledger of balances of bitcoin-the-token. Both are referred to as "bitcoin."
Miners found other advantages. The cool winters and dry air helped reduce the need for costly air conditioning to prevent their churning servers from overheating. As a bonus, the region was already equipped with some of the nation’s fastest high-speed internet, thanks to the massive fiber backbone the data centers had installed. All in all, recalls Miehe, the basin was bitcoin’s “killer app.”
Price fluctuations, which have been common in Bitcoin since the day it was created eight years ago, saddle miners with risk and uncertainty. And that burden is shared by chip manufacturers, especially ones like Bitmain, which invest the time and money in a full custom design. According to Nishant Sharma, the international marketing manager at Bitmain, when the price of bitcoin was breaking records this spring, sales of S9 rigs doubled. But again, that is not a trend the company can afford to bet on.
Cryptojacking and legitimate mining, however, are sensitive to cryptocurrency prices, which have declined sharply since their highs in late 2017 and early 2018. According to a McAfee September 2018 threats report, cryptojacking instances “remain very active,” but a decline in the value of cryptocurrencies could lead to a plunge in coin mining malware, just as fast as it emerged.
“It’s a real testament to Bitmain that they’ve been able to fend off the competition they have fended off. But still, you haven’t seen an Intel and a Nvidia go full hog into this sector, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if they did,” says Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics who compiled a miner survey with the University of Cambridge.
In January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block. Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the following text: "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks." This note has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.:18