The FBI-led shutdown of the notorious Silk Road cyber black market will have little impact on criminals' Bitcoin-focused online activities, according to security firm McAfee.
In the firm's Digital Laundry threat report McAfee security researchers Raj Samani, François Paget and Matthew Hart said the Silk Road shutdown will not lead to an overall decrease in global cybercrime levels. Samani told V3 this is because criminal groups will simply find a new market place to meet their needs.
"Regardless of law enforcement actions against virtual currency companies, users quickly identify new platforms to launder their funds; simply shutting down the leading platform will not solve the problem. There are many other services available that fill the void left by Silk Road, and in fact many existed even before the Silk Road takedown," he said.
Silk Road was a deep web marketplace only accessible through the Tor network. It was known to take Bitcoin payments for illegal services and goods, such as class A drugs. It was taken down by the FBI in September and at its height is believed to have generated sales of more than 9.5 million Bitcoins, estimated to be worth £739m.
The marketplace is listed as proof of criminals' growing reliance and interest in the cryptography-based Bitcoin currency. The paper said organised crime groups are largely interested in Bitcoins for money-laundering purposes.
"There is no question that virtual currencies have been used by criminals to conceal and transfer their ill-gotten gains with the click of a button," read the report.
The McAfee researchers added that a direct takedown of the Bitcoin language would prove equally ineffective due to the wealth of other cryptography-based languages currently available. The paper highlighted the shutdown of the Liberty Reserve payment service as prove of its claim.
"Attempts to close down such services have historically resulted in criminals simply moving their businesses elsewhere, with the migration to and from Liberty Reserve serving as an example," read the report.
The McAfee researchers also reported detecting a marked increase in the number of Bitcoin-mining botnets currently running. 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 and is rewarded for their trouble with Bitcoins. The action is completely legal under normal circumstances, but hijacking control of machines to run the algorithm is not.
The use of botnets to mine Bitcoins has been a growing problem facing businesses. Competing security firm Symantec claimed the notorious Bitcoin-mining ZeroAcess botnet was causing as much as $560,887 worth of harm per day in electricity use alone earlier in October.
Samani told V3 that McAfee has since uncovered evidence that the criminals running the botnet have begun pooling their resources to make their mining operations even more harmful and profitable.
"Because mining requires enormous processing power, the concept of ‘pooled' mining allows lots of people to work together to find a hash value. They all work together by sharing their resources. Once a hash has been generated by any user, they all split the created Bitcoins," he said.
"This technique hasn't passed the cybercriminals by and the jump in Bitcoin price earlier this year suggested that they'd caught on. With pooled mining, it is easier for botnet owners to install Bitcoin-mining clients on various systems working together to generate Bitcoins for the botnet masters."
Combating botnets and illegal cyber black markets, such as Silk Road, has been an ongoing goal of international law enforcement. Last month Europol reported arresting the hacker masterminds behind a notorious cyber black market, which was selling access to 21,000 compromised servers.
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