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An unsettling incident at a Starbucks in Argentina shows how far people will go to get their hands on cryptocurrency, the decentralized form of digital money that has skyrocketed in value over the last few months.
Noah Dinkin, CEO of email marketing firm Sensul, connected his laptop to Starbucks’ free public Wi-Fi, as millions of other coffee drinkers have done in the past. But when he pulled up his browser’s source code, he discovered something out of the ordinary: The Wi-Fi network was exploiting his laptop to mine cryptocurrency.
“Hi @Starbucks @StarbucksAr did you know that your in-store wifi provider in Buenos Aires forces a 10 second delay when you first connect to the wifi so it can mine bitcoin using a customer’s laptop? Feels a little off-brand,” the concerned customer wrote on Twitter on Dec. 2.
Hi @Starbucks @StarbucksAr did you know that your in-store wifi provider in Buenos Aires forces a 10 second delay when you first connect to the wifi so it can mine bitcoin using a customer's laptop? Feels a little off-brand.. cc @GMFlickinger pic.twitter.com/VkVVdSfUtT— Noah Dinkin (@imnoah) December 2, 2017
To its credit, the official Starbucks Coffee Twitter account responded (though nine days later), claiming it fixed the problem as soon as it was notified.
As soon as we were alerted of the situation in this specific store last week, we took swift action to ensure our internet provider resolved the issue and made the changes needed in order to ensure our customers could use Wi-Fi in our store safely.— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) December 11, 2017
In a statement to Motherboard, the company blamed its Wi-Fi provider and assured the incident was limited to one location.
“Last week, we were alerted to the issue and we reached out to our internet service provider—the Wi-Fi is not run by Starbucks, it’s not something we own or control,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said. “We want to ensure that our customers are able to search the internet over Wi-Fi securely, so we will always work closely with our service provider when something like this comes up. We don’t have any concern that this is widespread across any of our stores.”
Hiding source code in websites to mine cryptocurrency isn’t as uncommon as you may think. It’s becoming a concerning trend as the value of Bitcoin continues to explode. Aside from exploiting people’s machines without their permission, there are a number of problems with in-browser cryptocurrency mining. The most pressing issue is the amount of energy needed to support digital currency.
Current estimates say the total energy used to mine Bitcoin is comparable to the amount of energy used by New Zealand. And as Newsweek points out, it could, within five years, consume as much energy as the entire world. Bitcoin mining also impacts users by feeding off their computer’s processing resources.
If you notice your computer slowing down when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi, you may want to take a peek at what’s going on behind the scenes.
Phillip Tracy is a former technology staff writer at the Daily Dot. He's an expert on smartphones, social media trends, and gadgets. He previously reported on IoT and telecom for RCR Wireless News and contributed to NewBay Media magazine. He now writes for Laptop magazine.