Russian Nuclear Engineers Caught Cryptomining on Lab Supercomputer

By Tiffany Trader

February 12, 2018

Nuclear scientists working at the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (RFNC-VNIIEF) have been arrested for using lab supercomputing resources to mine crypto-currency, according to a report in Russia’s Interfax News Agency. Located at the Federal Nuclear Center in the Russian city of Sarov, the site is home to a 1 petaflops (peak) supercomputer, installed in 2011. Due to the organization’s high secrecy level the supercomputer is not publicly ranked, although it’s purported to have a Linpack score of 780 teraflops.

A 2005 graphic from Lawrence Livermore’s Science and Technology Review showing Russia’s Nuclear Cities Initiative, active in three of Russia’s ten closed nuclear cities—Sarov, Seversk, Snezhinsk—with plans to work with a fourth, Zheleznogorsk. Source.

The scientists’ plans were foiled when they attempted to connect the classified nuclear resource to the internet. The facility’s security team was alerted of the breach and the involved parties were turned over to the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency.

“There was an attempt at unauthorized use of office computing capacities for personal purposes, including for so-called mining,” Tatyana Zalesskaya, head of the research institute press service, told Interfax on Friday.

“Their activities were stopped in time,” she added. “The bungling miners have been detained by the competent authorities. As far as we are aware, a criminal case has been opened.”

The Interfax article did not specify how many individuals are being detained or their names.

The closed city of Sarov is where USSR’s first nuclear bomb was produced leading to the testing of “First Lightning” on August 29, 1949. The city is overseen by Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear energy corporation, which its website attests, “produces supercomputers and software as well as different nuclear and non-nuclear innovative products” and is the largest electricity generating company in Russia.

If you’ve ever wondered whether US lab supercomputers would be used to mine for cryptocurrency, the topic was addressed in a Reddit AMA conducted with the staff of Livermore Computing (LC) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) last year.

Here’s their response:

DOE supercomputers are government resources for national missions. Bitcoin mining would be a misuse of government funds.

In general, though, it’s fun to think about how you could use lots of supercomputing power for Bitcoin mining, but even our machines aren’t big enough to break the system. The number of machines mining bitcoin worldwide has been estimated to have a hash rate many thousands of times faster than all the Top 500 machines combined, so we wouldn’t be able to decide to break the blockchain by ourselves (https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterdetwiler/2016/07/21/mining-bitcoins-is-a-surprisingly-energy-intensive-endeavor/2/#6f0cae8a30f3). Also, mining bitcoins requires a lot of power, and it’s been estimated that even if you used our Sequoia system to mine bitcoin, you’d only make $40/day (https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/government-bans-professor-mining-bitcoin-supercomputer-1402002877/). The amount we pay every day to power the machine is a lot more than that. So even if it were legal to mine bitcoins with DOE supercomputers, there’d be no point. The most successful machines for mining bitcoins use low-power custom ASICs built specifically for hashing, and they’ll be more cost-effective than a general purpose CPU or GPU system any day.

Privately-networked government supercomputers are a hard target, but government websites this week proved vulnerable to cryptomining attacks. As reported by the BBC, hackers exploited a number of government websites, including the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), using malware called Coinhive to turn visitors’ compute cycles into cryto-cash. According to British security researcher Scott Helme, more than 4,000 websites around the world were infected with the malicious program that mines for the anonymous cryptocurrency Monero by hijacking vistors’ computers.

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