IF you have lived through the era of Carl Sagan, there is very little doubt that your consciousness about the existence of extra-terrestrial beings have not been awakened. His book, Murmurs of Earth, enumerates the various means that earthlings have tried to communicate with other beings in the universe.

In May 1999 the University of California launched [email protected] SETI stands for the” Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” Originally thought that it could at best recruit only a thousand or so participants, more than a million people actually signed up on the day and in the process overwhelmed the meager desktop PC that was set aside for this project.

SETI at that time collected about 35 Gigabytes of data daily from large radio telescopes that listened in to the vast emptiness of space looking for signs of intelligence. The Milky Way Galaxy alone contains billions of stars just like our sun, and the universe itself has billions of galaxies, so if intelligent life can evolve on earth then surely it also can evolve in those other places.

[email protected] was built around the idea that people with personal computers who often leave them to do something else and then just let the screensaver run are actually wasting good computing resources. This was a good thing, as these ‘idle’ moments can actually be used to process the large amount of data that SETI collects from the galaxy.

By providing a software that runs in place of the screensaver and distributing the data that needed to be processed, [email protected] was able to recruit about four million people since then and attain computational power that could rival today’s supercomputers.

The thought alone that Me with my Computer can very well be the one to process the data that discovered the first intelligent signal from beyond our planet was motivation enough. And although no significant discovery of such has been made, I still contribute to the cause and let SETI have my idle computer moments willingly.

Fast forward, today– a similar concept of distributing computing load still persists but more in a manner that is for a far less worthy cause than [email protected] For starters, it doesn’t just take advantage of your idle computing time but actually steals it. Two, it doesn’t even bother to get your permission and implants itself surreptitiously in your computer. And three, its purpose is to cause harm to other computers if not further financial gains of malicious entities in the form of mining for bitcoin or other crypto-currencies.

By exploiting software vulnerabilities and using the way of malicious software (malware), computers and mobile devices in this ‘always-connected’ era are ripe for the picking by unscrupulous individuals and shady organizations.

Bots, short for Internet robots, are software that are programmed to run repetitive tasks with much higher rate of efficiency and frequency than humans. Originally created for chats and harvesting information from websites, it has evolved to do various other purposes such as automating your character in online games, send copious amounts of unsolicited email (spam) and of late, being transformed into a ‘zombie’ controlled by a command and control server as part of a collective ‘Botnet,’ or a network of interconnected bots. Botnets are usually operated by organized groups to enable them to perform simultaneous and automated attacks on any target in the Internet.

Criminal elements perform distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on websites or servers to render them inoperable. By bombarding the target with massive amounts of traffic it overwhelms it to the point of unresponsiveness. This is actually being peddled as a service to anyone who can afford it. A modern-day ‘gun-for-hire’ with Internet servers as the victim and technology as the weapon. You can also pay them to send SPAM, rig polls and surveys, create and post Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts, and of course today’s special— peddling fake news!

With the rise in awareness and value of bitcoins and other forms of crypto-currency, crypto-miners are also now into the malware/botnet business. Not to be paid for services but for the purpose of financial gain.

Crypto-mining is the process of getting rewarded by bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies for solving complex mathematical problems. These are necessary computations that allows all the transactions in the blockchain (the technology that enables transactions) to be verified and recorded in public ledgers.

To do this would require massive computational power and energy. A crypto-miner then needs to buy or create his own mining ‘rig’ server with enough computing horsepower hardware and software as well as house it in an installation sufficient to provide the necessary electricity to power them.

An easier but illegal way is to mimic what [email protected] was doing. Harness the processing power and distribute the computing load to several computers without the knowledge of the owners, thereby eliminating the need for buying computers and paying for electricity. This is known as ‘crypto-jacking’.

By taking advantage of vulnerabilities in software and injecting malicious mining software to infiltrate browsers and other applications, crypto-mining criminals suck out the juice from computers to earn bitcoins or cryptocurrency unbeknown to their owners. So far, these bastards have carted away millions of dollars in crypto-currencies, all without spending anything.

Is the fan on your computer suddenly whirring too loudly? Is the application in your phone acting very erratic and slow? Be wary – there might be a ghost in your machine!