Hackers could turn toasters into Bitcoin mines as value rockets

25 Sep 2013


HELSINKI: The humble toaster could become a security threat in the future due to the virtual currency Bitcoin.

For the uninitiated, Bitcoins are a cryptography-based digital currency, which allows users to send and receive money with a degree of anonymity without using traditional commerce networks, in effect cutting out middlemen such as banks. Many governments are also wary of their use as Bitcoin value is determined separately from them. Their uptake has rocketed over the past few years.

While hanging out in Helsinki with F-Secure, the firm's chief research officer Mikko Hypponen, never one to mince his words, said that the increasing value of Bitcoins is enticing criminal gangs to rework traditional malware targeting businesses to turn infected machines into Bitcoin mines.

Bitcoin mining refers to the way Bitcoins are actually earned. In a normal situation, a user runs an algorithm  on their computer to authenticate transactions on the Bitcoin platform. This is legal and the person running the process is rewarded with Bitcoins for their trouble. However, turning hoards of machines into your own army to generate huge numbers of Bitcoins is not. As such the crooks love it, as Hypponen explained.

"Bitcoins have been skyrocketing in value. At the moment the value per Bitcoin is currently $134. As this started happening and people started realising there's actual money in Bitcoin, people started mining them pretty seriously," he said.

"A big deal about crypto currency [such as Bitcoin] is the mining part. You can actually use other computers to mine and because of this, botnet-based mining is becoming a real problem. About a year ago we spotted a botnet not spreading malware or phishing, it was just mining bitcoins."

Hypponen went on to explain that Bitcoins' financial allure has already made established cyber criminals rethink their strategies and adapt some of the biggest, most dangerous botnets in the world to mine Bitcoins.

"ZeroAccess used to monetise itself with click fraud. They got on the machine and made it click on adverts to earn money. They changed their tactic in spring and went fully into Bitcoin mining. Some of our estimates suggest it is earning $58,000 a day. That's real money and something they will want to move to the real world," he said.

This is where the toaster idea comes in. Hypponen added that many of the gangs are so enthralled by Bitcoin's potential they've started experimenting with the idea of turning non-traditional devices into mines.

"[When mining Bitcoins] the user is irrelevant, it's the GPU, the computer and the network connection they need. This is especially interesting when you look at automation. I have a pebble watch, it has a GPU, it could mine Bitcoins, so does my fridge and my toaster – these are going to be used to mine Bitcoins," he said.

"We accepted toasters would eventually have computers, but didn't think it would be a problem – who would want to write malware for a toaster right? Well now they have a reason."

This may be a far-fetched example of how far the threat could go, but as recent hacks of IP-based lightbulbs have shown, the home of the future could be open to all kinds of attacks, even burnt toast.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Larry Ellison ditches Oracle OpenWorld keynote for America's Cup

24 Sep 2013

Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison disappointed the 60,000 OpenWorld attendees gathered at the Moscone Center on Tuesday afternoon by ditching his keynote slot at the last minute in favour of spending the afternoon out on the water.

Although Ellison is best known as the head of a major enterprise IT player, he’s also the owner of the Oracle Team USA sailing team, which just happens to be in the midst of a thrilling (if you like that kind of thing) race this week.

As is often the case, the OpenWorld user event is taking place at the same time as the America's Cup. But while in previous years the show has coincided with earlier heats or has been held in other locations, this week the final stage of the sailing competition is taking place in Ellison’s home town of San Francisco and is being closely contested by the US and New Zealand, who were leading the US by eight to seven as they took to the waters on Tuesday afternoon.

The timing was due to an unfortunate set of circumstances. Shipping regulations, broadcast time limits for the networks meaning sailing can only take place within defined times each day, and the tide and wind conditions, all combined to extend the race into OpenWorld week.

This left Ellison with a decision to make: leave his sailing team to their fate and head back to the Moscone stage by 2.15pm on Tuesday to fulfill his Oracle duties; or leave his Oracle staff to deal with the fallout from a no-show at Moscone and stay on the boat to watch how his team progressed. He chose the latter, leaving 60,000 disappointed OpenWorld attendees to hear from Ellison’s deputy Thomas Kurian. But while Kurian might have delivered the same information, Ellison draws the crowds for the entertainment factor of hearing who his latest target for digs and jibes will be this year.

So Kurian was faced with an exodus of disappointed DBAs and customers, and entered the stage to a very muted sprinkling of applause, while Ellison is no doubt celebrating Oracle’s eventual victory, meaning the US and New Zealand are now neck and neck with eight wins each. The last race is Wednesday, so Ellison’s PR team must be hastily rearranging all his commitments tomorrow to ensure his day is free to be back on the water. Ellison could always offer a partial refund on the cost of OpenWorld tickets to sweeten the disappointment, but based on his hard-nosed business sense, that seems unlikely.

Whether Ellison’s decision was an indication of his huge passion for sailing, or evidence of the rich not giving a damn, we’re still cheering Oracle Team USA – it’s skippered by Team GB’s Olympics hero Ben Ainslie after all.

Apple iPhone 5S and 5C launch draws Samsung fans into enemy territory

20 Sep 2013

The Apple iPhone 5S and 5C launched in London on Friday morning, leading to the same fanboy frenzy at the Apple store in Regent Street as usual. When the doors opened at around 8am the horde of Apple fans was around 200-strong and featured several of the usual suspects who show up at the front of the pack every year.

iPhone 5S 5C launch store front

As always the queue held a mix of actual Apple fans who were just plain obsessed with the product, such as one particularly affluent 17-year-old who triumphantly told V3: "I'm going to get two gold iPhone 5S [handsets], one 64GB one 32GB. I'm going to keep both."

Other less eager members of the queue were there for financial reasons. One particularly entrepreneurial individual boasted – while holding a Galaxy S4 – "I'm already putting them on eBay."

iPhone 5S 5C launch Samsung man

Interestingly none of the people leaving the store had an iPhone 5C, an early indication that Apple may have swung a miss with its first ever plastic, colourful, smartphone. However, those coming out with iPhone 5S handsets seemed happy enough, meaning Apple's still likely keeping its core fanbase happy.

iPhone 5S 5C launch happy shoppers

The iPhone 5S and 5C were unveiled in California earlier this month. The iPhone 5S is Apple's latest top-end smartphone and boasts a host of tech and software upgrades. These include a new A7 chip, which Apple claims is radically faster than its previous A6 chip, and a new Touch ID scanner that lets users unlock their phones using a fingerprint scanner. The 5C by comparison is a more timid affair, featuring close to identical internal specifications to the iPhone 5.

The two phones both come with Apple's latest iOS 7 operating system preinstalled. The OS was released two days before the iPhone 5S and 5C launch as a software update for the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 and iPad 2 and above. Apple lists iOS 7 as having 200 new features, including 41 security upgrades.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Apple fans brave rain in wait for iPhone 5S: In pictures

19 Sep 2013

Despite the foul September weather lashing the capital on Thursday afternoon, hardy Apple fans were still queuing outside the shop as they prepared to get their mitts on the iPhone 5S the moment it goes on sale tomorrow.

V3 put on a nice waterproof coat, opened a large umbrella and set off to see how these intrepid fans were getting on. We were pleased to find them well set up for the rain that is falling steadily; clearly they’ve done this before.

Apple fans queue in the rain for the launch of the iPhone 5S

A humble traffic cone marks the start of the maddest queue in London

While it’s no doubt madness to subject yourself to this kind of suffering it shows something about the sheer levels of brand loyalty Apple can inspire in its most devoted of users. Let's just hope they have already tried iOS 7 and know what they're letting themselves in for with the new operating system.

Apple fans queue in the rain for the launch of the iPhone 5S as bemused crowds watch on

The Apple flag flies against a grey London sky as well-kempt Londoners stare at the shapeless forms of those queing for the iPhone 5S

However, it is probably fair to note that, so far, the queues are a long way short of some previous launches of the firm's new iPhone devices, such as the iPhone 4S, which came out two years ago.

Then again, with the rain falling, perhaps some people have been discouraged to attend. We’ll be at the Apple store tomorrow morning to see if the crowds have grown, and the diehards at the front have dried out, so check back then.

Intel uses wine to charge mobiles, upsets winos everywhere

13 Sep 2013

Intel showed off a low-power communications research project at the firm's Intel Developer Forum (IDF) on Thursday, which uses wine to charge mobile devices, an energy-efficient alcoholic's dream.

The project was demonstrated by Dr Genevieve Bell, Intel's forward thinking anthropologist executive who has been studying ways to solve the chipmaker's mobile computing problems.

"Some people turn water into wine, here at Intel we're turning wine into electricity," Bell said.

Intel wine experiment with copper an dzinc

Demonstrating what is probably the perfect solution for energy-conscious drinkers out there, an Intel Labs researcher talked through the project on stage alongside Bell, showing off a low-power processor and an accelerometer that were powered by a glass of wine.

"Here's a peek inside the Intel Labs that might redefine what you think low power really is. Here I have a low-power communications solution, a low-power processing solution and an accelerometer," he exclaimed.

"When I talk about low power you might think low power as in one watt or two watt solutions you find in a phone. Today I'm not here to talk about Watts, or milli-Watts, but I'm here to talk about micro-Watts."

The researcher boasted that the computing solutions being worked on in Intel Labs are so low in power that in the future we'll be able to "power them by the heat of our skin, or the ambilight in the room", or "something a little more entertaining", he added, pointing at the wine glass hooked up to the accelerometer.

Intle Wine experiment IDF2013

Referring to the old school lemon copper trick, the Intel Labs staffer took a big red bottle, poured some wine into the glass, attached some copper and some zinc, and performed an experiment that was not dissimilar to what most of us probably did in high school with lemons and copper electrodes.

Doing this showed the accelerometer data being transferred from the processor and sent to a computer, with a flower rendering on the computer, demonstrating the concept of powering a computing operation with what was left over from last night's dinner.

According to Intel, the experiment showed that "low-power doesn't actually mean low performance".

"It's possible to start to imagine a world of incredibly low power but also with high performance, which will help unburden us, help us do things that are remarkable and gives the ability to power things like constant sensing, communication, and computing - all of which are necessary for our mobile future," Bell noted.

Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer incurs wrath of white hats for iPhone 5S passcode dismissal

12 Sep 2013

Yahoo chief executive and generally smart person Marissa Mayer has made a rare slip-up, publicly admitting she doesn't have a passcode on her smartphone due to being too busy.

Mayer made the revelation during an interview at the TechCrunch Dispute conference, gleefully admitting her security no-no when asked for her thoughts on the new Apple iPhone 5S fingerprint scanner.

"It's funny because you mocked me once at TechCrunch, maybe it was at LeWeb, because Mike was making fun of me because I don't have a passcode on my phone," she said.

"And Mike was like ‘Are you crazy?', and I was like 'Look, I just can't do this passcode thing, like 15 times a day,' and then when I saw the fingerprint thing I thought now I don't have to. I was excited about that and think building some of these smart sensors into the phone is really exciting."

Following the admission the security community is up in arms, with many bemoaning the ex-Google vice president's apparent ignorance about even the most basic smartphone security. Independent security expert Graham Cluley went so far as to call the Yahoo chief a "twerp".

"Colour me unimpressed. There's really not any excuse for having even the weakest four-digit passcode on your iPhone (longer, more complex passwords are better and surprisingly easy to remember), and yet lots of people have none in place," he wrote.

"What's alarming is that Mayer is the CEO of a major internet company, who have a responsibility for protecting the privacy of hundreds of millions of net users. What kind of example is she setting by not having any form of login security on her smartphone? What a twerp."

However, the accusation may be slightly over the top. As Tim Cook noted during the iPhone launch event on Tuesday, many iPhone users follow Mayer's example in not bothering to turn on the passcode, hence Apple adding the fingerprint scanner.

F-Secure's security advisor Sean Sullivan also took a more lenient approach to Mayer's admission. "It seems to me that the 'blame the user' tech crowd is a bit too eager to pile on the abuse for her habits. Perhaps they just don’t want to admit their advice is a failure, which doesn’t really meet everybody’s real-world needs," he said.

"Context matters. Regular people are careless with their phones, so regular people should really consider using a password. Internet company CEOs who live in the penthouse of the Four Seasons aren’t regular folks, so the same advice just doesn’t apply."

We think if polled, most chief executives around the world would give the exact same – albeit slightly less gleeful – answer. As such, while it's fair to bemoan Mayer's security mishap, we should avoid reverting to finger pointing and instead take it as a sign we need to do more to educate people about the importance of robust cyber security, as the UK government is doing with its ongoing Cyber Strategy.

You can watch the whole interview with Mayer in the YouTube video below.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Google turns 15: Search giant enters mid-teen Android years

09 Sep 2013

Google has officially turned 15 marking a milestone moment in the search-turned-hardware and software giant's history.

While Google has celebrated the news, like all teenagers, Google's fifteenth year looks set to be a turbulent one. This is because despite concerns from privacy groups, having taken control of well over 90 percent of the search market, Google has been increasingly eager to create new ways to monetise its valuable customer data over the last half decade.

The story of Google and its quest for customer data, as all great start-ups do, started in a basement, where in September 1998 Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the first iteration of Google Search. Taking on the then embedded leaders, like former heavyweight Yahoo, Google proved a hit and by July 2000 the search engine was listed as the world's most popular, responsible for one billion indexes.

Riding off the early success and clearly realising the value of its search data, Google decided to embark on a wave of service releases designed to expand and refine the amount of data it could collect. This started in 2001 when it expanded its search engine to offer image search to its users. However it was only in 2005 when Google really hit its stride, releasing its Earth, Maps, Talk and Video services and making what could be argued as its most important purchase to date - Android.

The purchase of Android was a clear bid by Google to increase the data it could collect, with smartphones and tablets running the OS offering the firm a means to collect previously unknown information, like customer location data. Aware of this, Google's focus has gradually shifted to devices as well as software, with the company releasing its first own-brand Nexus device, the Nexus One in 2010 and buying former mobile heavyweight Motorola in 2011.

Since then Google's device and software development business has boomed, with Android currently being listed as the most used mobile operating system in the world. However, the success has come with a cost, with numerous privacy groups getting increasingly angry about the amount of data Google's storing. This anger culminated over the summer when it was revealed Google was one of the main companies targeted by the NSA during its PRISM campaign - which saw the agency siphon vast amounts of customer data from Google.

Unperturbed by this, Google's unveiled its latest KitKat Android version and has pushed forward with the development of its Google Glass wearable computer - a device again surrounded by privacy concerns. For this reason, while Google's first 15 years may have been entirely focused on collecting customer data, its next 15 may well be about finding ways to secure it and win back concerned customers trust - a fact apparently not lost on Google, which according to recent reports has begun working to better encrypt data being stored and passing through its data centres.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Here's hoping Nokia doesn't become the next Motorola and Lumia innovation continues

03 Sep 2013

Nokia Lumia 1020 with Windows Phone 8 and a 41MP camera

Tech acquisitions are always dicey for any company, with the question of exactly how the two firm's will combine all but impossible to know.

In the past there have been some success stories, for example when Chinese tech company Lenovo bought IBM's Thinkpad business-focused brand. In this instance the rather than simply killing off the competition, Lenovo ran with the business, creating a slew of awesome new devices that reignited enterprise interest in the brand.

However, others have been less successful, like Google purchase of Motorola. Google originally shocked the tech world in 2011 when it announced plans to pay $12.5bn to buy Motorola Mobility. The move was a shock as Motorola was one of the few firms not to have partnered with Google to create an own-brand Nexus device.

The oddness of the deal split opinion, with some arguing the purchase was a purely defensive move on the part of Google, designed to protect it from further patent infringement claims from competitors like Apple. Others took a more positive attitude, hoping it would lead to a fresh wave of innovative handsets from Motorola, which had struggled since its heyday with the original feature phone Razr.

Sadly the first group turned out to be right, with Google showing little outward interest in the company, leaving Motorola to release good, but not great smartphones - with the notable exception of the Intel-powered Razr i which is still one of the best examples of what the chip-maker can offer the smartphone world. As proof of this Motorola continues to be one of the few big name tech companies not to have made a Nexus smartphone or tablet, with Google choosing Asus and LG for its latest run of own-brand devices.

The sad example set by Google and Motorola leaves me nervous that history will repeat itself with Microsoft and Nokia. During the speeches by soon-to-be-gone Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer and current Nokia head Stephen Elop neither really paid much attention to Nokia's top end technologies, like Pureview. Instead the emphasis was entirely on app development and using Nokia's Asha range as a stepping stone to get people onto Windows Phone.

While this emphasis makes perfect sense, after all every analyst under the sun has listed emerging markets as the next cash cow for mobile phone makers, it could be bad news for tech heads. In recent years Nokia's carved out a serious name for itself by creating top-end premier Lumia Windows Phones capable of competing with Samsung and Apple in terms of innovation.

This trend peaked earlier this year when Nokia unveiled its Lumia 1020 (pictured above). Featuring an amazing 41MP rear camera sensor, a host of custom Nokia apps and featuring the Finnish phone maker's iconic Lumia design, the phone truly showcased the best Windows Phone could offer.

While Microsoft and Nokia have promised the deal will "boost innovation" in the Windows Phone ecosystem, I'm not convinced it will be in the high-end space. Instead, I think it'll be solely aimed at creating affordable handsets designed to appeal to buyers on a budget or emerging markets. These fears are compounded by the departure of key players that have helped shape Nokia's top end offering, like designer Marko Ahtisaari.

Still, it is early days and key details about the deal remain unknown so my fears could well be misplaced and, as a business strategy, a focus on emerging markets would make perfect sense. Because of this, even if I am right, at worst the new strategy will simply leave myself and other early Windows Phone adopters sad not to see another top end Nokia Lumia.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

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