Australian Government Staffers Questioned in ‘Sneaky’ Mining Operation

March 12, 2018

Two IT staffers at an Australian federal government agency are under scrutiny for allegedly running a “sneaky” cryptocurrency mining operation. The alleged incidents happened on a computer network belonging to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology — however at press time, it’s unclear if the mining was deliberate or part of an ongoing crypto-jacking scheme.

Mining Is a Rough Business

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency mining uses considerable amounts of energy, thanks to the computational power required to process transactions and keep the networks secure. The entire nation of Iceland now reportedly requires more energy to mine bitcoin than it does to power its residences.

Dr. Chris Berg of Australian university RMIT’s Blockchain Innovation Hub says this may have been the deciding factor in the staffers decision to use government property to run their operation:

“One possibility is that they’re trying to use some of the equipment that the Bureau of Meteorology have. The Bureau of Meteorology has some very fast computers. Another possibility, though, is that they’re just trying to get the Bureau to pay for the electricity. Mining is a very electricity-intensive task, and they probably didn’t want to pay for it themselves.”

Wait… You Guys Aren’t Doing Meteorology Here

The staffers first came under suspicion two weeks ago following a raid on the Bureau’s headquarters, after federal officials executed a search warrant in Melbourne. One of the staffers has been put on indefinite leave, while the fate of the other is currently unknown.

It isn’t illegal to use computers to mine cryptocurrency in Australia, but using government equipment without permission carries numerous penalties, including fines and even jail time. No charges against the staffers have been filed yet, though both are being held for interrogation.

Police authorities are looking at whether the staffers potentially installed malware onto the Bureau’s computers to mine the cryptocurrency, which would suggest “crypto-jacking”, or involuntary mining, software was in place. In such an event, the staffers would likely face different (and possibly harsher) consequences.

Mining on the Company’s Dime? This Sounds Familiar

The Australian case isn’t the first scenario of culprits using non-personal computers to create digital coins. One of the earliest cases took place in February 2014, when a student at Harvard University admitted to using the school’s 14,000 core super computer to mine Dogecoin. The student was ultimately barred from accessing research computers permanently.

Russian nuclear scientists were also discovered mining bitcoin at the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov in February 2018. The group had access to one the country’s most powerful computer units.

Cryptocurrency mining has become so popular over the last few years that the consumer hardware arena is facing vast limitations. Currently, there is even a global shortage of graphics cards, which has ultimately led to higher energy and mining prices.

Should authorities be lenient with the staffers? Post your comments below.

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