NortonLifeLock, the company formerly known as Symantec, has opened up a crypto can of worms a new product feature that allows users to dedicate spare graphics-chip cycles to mine the Ethereum digital currency.
While cryptocurrency proponents lauded the new feature, announced last week, many security professionals and environmentally concerned critics questioned why a security company would add a feature that consumes massive amounts of energy and supports the speculative digital payment system that has become the de facto mechanism to collect profits from cybercrime.
For its part, NortonLifeLock positioned the offering as "a secure, reliable way for consumers to mine for Ether without opening themselves and their devices up to these pitfalls [cyberattacks]."
Starting out, the company will offer customers in its early adopter program the option of mining the Etherium cryptocurrency, but plans to expand the feature to all customers and more cryptocurrencies, said Gagan Singh, NortonLifeLock's chief product officer, in an e-mail interview.
"Cryptomining is taking on a bigger part of consumers' digital lives, so we took the steps to ensure they have a safe and easy way to mine crypto," he said. "There is a lot of innovation happening in the crypto-economy that we continue to monitor."
Cryptocurrency proponents supported the move, with crypto-information site Cointelegraph positioning the feature as "privacy-centric tech is finally adapting to crypto." Yet some security professionals scratched their collective heads.
Bruce Schneier, a noted cryptographer, author, and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, questioned why a security company would adopt an unrelated feature.
"It seems like a dumb idea to me, but I've never been on the cryptocurrency hype train," he says. "But if people want to mine cryptocurrency, this is better than using some shady, no-name software package that does who-knows-what."
Another well-known cybersecurity expert, Robert Graham, also reacted with surprise, tweeting, "Is this a thing? IS THIS A THING??"
When asked about Norton's new feature, he criticized the security software company for trying to profit from mining cryptocurrency.
"Consumers should not trust cybersecurity products that have unrelated features, like cryptomining," he says. "Norton's product seems more about exploiting consumers than protecting them."
A variety of cryptocurrencies have become extremely popular in the past few years, as speculators have driven prices to highs near $60,000 for Bitcoin and over $4,000 for Etherium in early May. Since then, the two cryptocurrencies have retreated somewhat, to $37,040 and $2,691, respectively, as of June 4.
Yet laissez-faire cryptocurrencies have also allowed cybercriminals to profit from schemes ranging from ransomware to the sale of illegal pharmaceuticals. One analysis of ransomware payoff published in January found payments quadrupled over the previous year, rising to nearly $350 million.
The Biden administration issued an anti-corruption directive on June 3, making the fight against financial crimes a national priority. The previous week, the US Department of Treasury had proposed reporting requirements for cryptocurrency brokers and offshore exchanges. Last year, the Trump administration's Department of Justice also singled out cryptocurrency as a national concern, as ransomware attacks — and demands for payment in Bitcoins — nearly doubled.
"Many of cryptocurrency’s central features — including decentralized operation and control, and, in some cases, a high degree of anonymity — present new and unique challenges for public safety that must be addressed, lest the technology be used predominantly for criminal activity," the US Department of Justice stated in its Cryptocurrency Enforcement Framework published in October. "Indeed, despite its relatively brief existence, cryptocurrency technology plays a role in many of the most significant criminal and national security threats that the United States faces."
NortonLifeLock revealed scant details of the new mining feature. In a June 2 announcement, the company stated that users in the company's early adopter program will be invited to mine Etherium. Coin mining is a function of the public blockchain ledgers, which are the hallmark of Bitcoin, Etherium, and other cryptocurrencies, and refers to series of complex calculations that are necessary to conduct the proof of work necessary to verify and audit cryptocurrency transactions.
NortonLifeLock portrayed the software landscape for mining software as dangerous for its users and its new feature as the safe way to take part in cryptocurrency mining.
"For years, many coinminers have had to take risks in their quest for cryptocurrency, disabling their security in order to run coinmining and allowing unvetted code on their machines that could be skimming from their earnings or even planting ransomware," the company said in a release. "Earnings are commonly stored directly on miners' hard drives, where their digital wallet could be lost should it fail."
NortonLifeLock also stresses that it is just offering a safe way for consumers to take part in the cryptomining market, underscoring that cryptocurrency has many uses beside cybercrime.
"There is no one payment method that enables crime," Singh says. "Cybercriminals and scammers will use any and all tools at this disposal to get what they want, whether it’s credit cards, gift cards or cryptocurrencies. What’s important is that consumers have access to tools like Norton Crypto to help protect their devices, online privacy and identity from these scammers."
Traditionally, mining cryptocurrency is a way for anyone to have a chance to collect some virtual cash by dedicating a computer or computer cluster to the task. However, as the workload has increased for the proof-of-work done by miners, the hardware requirements have grown quickly. CPU-based systems gave way to clusters of graphics cards, which has given way to data centers and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) customized to quickly mine coin. Cryptocurrencies have been roundly criticized for their reliance on large clusters of computers, which consume massive amounts of energy, to run their foundational infrastructure.
The computer infrastructure to support Etherium, for example, reportedly consumed as much energy as Iceland in 2018, driving the group behind the technical standards for the coin to adopt a different — and much more efficient — proof of work algorithm that distributes work among miners, rather than rely on massive redundancies.
Yet rampant speculation in the cryptocurrency market has driven prices up and fueled demand for mining. Norton will likely act as a mining pool, which brings together coin miners to increase the chance of successfully winning the proof-of-work tasks that reward participants with coins. Pools will typically divide up the resulting coins into fractions and distribute them based on the amount of work delivered by the participant. Norton's role, security experts say, could cause tension between its roles as a security provider and as a cryptocurrency miner.
Technology journalist Dan Goodin perhaps summed it up best: "It's hard not to be cynical when you cover companies like Norton who in the name of security launch a service like Norton Crypto. It's supposed to help users mine and store Ethereum safely. But it only worsens the cryptocurrency scourge by encouraging more followers."