Cambridge Analytica, the data services firm at the epicenter of the recent public relations nightmare faced by Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), was looking to make a push into the world of digital currencies via an initial coin offering (ICO).
The company’s ICO effort was overseen by former CEO Alexander Nix, but Nix departed Cambridge Analytica last month amid the Facebook data controversy. Though shares of Facebook, the largest U.S. social media company, bounced back modestly this week, the stock is still down nearly 15 percent from its 52-week high, a decline caused in large part by the data-sharing controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica.
“Documents and emails obtained by The New York Times show that Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to help promote another group’s digital token, the Dragon Coin, associated the firm with a famous gangster in Macau who has gone by the nickname Broken Tooth,” reports The New York Times.
Last year, there were hundreds of ICOs with the 10 largest raising well over $1 billion on a combined basis. Year-to-date, there have been 183 ICOs, which have raised over $6 billion combined, according to Coinschedule.com. March saw the bulk of that activity with $2.94 billion raised.
Not only was Cambridge Analytica looking to launch its own ICO, the company has actively looked for work with blockchain companies and other firms looking to launch their own digital tokens.
Jill Carlson, a blockchain consultant, “said the Cambridge Analytica employees had bragged about their success in helping get President Trump elected and their ability to carefully target advertising campaigns using data from social networks like Facebook,” according to the New York Times.
The employee in charge of the ICO business at Cambridge Analytica departed the firm in February. Year-to-date, Janauary has been the busiest month for ICO’s with 56. Month-to-date, April has seen 22 initial offerings for digital tokens.
CoinSchedule applies trust grades of “A” to “E” on ICOs with A being the highest and “E” being the worst. Most of the ICOs on the site have grades of C or lower.
Hackers Have Continued To Target Cryptocurrency Exchanges, And Little Can Be Done About It.
This month, the crypto trading platform Bitmart announced that hackers had stolen nearly $200 million after breaking into a company account.
It’s not just about investors getting rich from cryptocurrencies.
Hackers have stolen billions of dollars in virtual assets from cryptocurrency exchanges during the last year by attacking some of the marketplaces that have developed throughout the bitcoin boom.
There have been at least 20 successful robberies of crypto exchanges or projects this year, totaling more than $10 million in digital currencies. In at least six cases, hackers stole more than $100 million, according to data compiled by NBC News. Bank robberies last year resulted in offenders pulling off an average of less than $5,000 per job, according to FBI statistics.
Despite the fact that these robberies have a large price tag, they do not usually have the same degree of drama or attention as traditional bank robberies. But cryptocurrency experts believe they provide a cautionary tale for would-be cryptocurrency investors: exchanges are now attractive targets for hackers.
“If you hack a Fortune 500 company today, you might steal some usernames and passwords,” said Esteban Castaño, the CEO and co-founder of TRM Labs, a company that builds tools for companies to track digital assets. “If you hack a cryptocurrency exchange, you may have millions of dollars in cryptocurrency.”
Modern-Day bank robbers
Cryptocurrencies, which were once an obscure technology requiring a high degree of technical knowledge to purchase, have evolved into a more accessible investment and speculation tool, prompting over 300 businesses to start up in recent years to provide individuals with an easy method to invest in and trade everything from bitcoin to less prominent “altcoins” like dogecoin and shibu.
Exchanges that trade cryptocurrencies work similarly to traditional money exchanges, establishing rates for various currencies and collecting a fee to enable trades. However, while several countries have tough rules in place, it is rather simple for technology entrepreneurs to establish an exchange almost anywhere throughout the globe and run it as they choose.
Cryptocurrencies, as the name implies, are decentralized, secure currencies. However, because cryptocurrency exchanges generally start with a small staff and few if any full-time cybersecurity specialists, they are especially vulnerable to cybercriminals. Their developers may work at breakneck speeds to get the code to run correctly, inadvertently creating vulnerabilities that allow hackers access.
Cryptocurrency exchanges keep many of their cryptocurrencies in so-called cold wallets, which are stored securely offline. Everything else is kept in “hot wallets,” which are liquid and can be sent to clients. That means if a hacker compromises a staff member’s account — a frequent internet security breach – they may pull off a large theft, according to Dave Jevans, the founder of CipherTrace, a company that tracks theft and fraud in cryptocurrencies.
“If you steal the private keys to a hot wallet, it’s not like stealing a database of people’s names and Social Security Numbers,” Jevans said. “You’ve just basically stolen all their money.”
If an exchange has adequate funds and plans ahead to create an emergency fund, it can reimburse customers if its system is assaulted, according to Jevans. If not, they are generally forced out of business.
“Not every exchange is so wealthy or has so much foresight. It just goes, pop, ‘We’re out of business. Sorry, you’re all screwed,’” he said.
Recent Cryptocurrency Exchange Hacks
In early December, when the cryptocurrency trading platform Bitmart announced that hackers had stolen almost $200 million from a firm account, one of the most significant robberies that has occurred. The firm shut down client transactions for three days before allowing them to resume trading their money.
The problem is made worse by the fact that many cryptocurrency projects, in order to avoid government controls, operate from nations where law enforcement agencies have little power to go after transnational hackers. Or if they are hacked, they are less likely to ask for government assistance on principle because of their beliefs, according to Beth Bisbee, CEO of Chainalysis a company that tracks cryptocurrency transactions for both private companies and government agencies.
“Some people want to be anti-bank and anti-oversight,” Bisbee said. “They’re not necessarily wanting to work with law enforcement, even though they’d be considered a victim and it’d be beneficial for them to do so.”
Keeping A Low Profile
Exchange hacks, unlike bank robberies of old, don’t have the same characteristics that made them front-page news in the past. Despite their significant dollar amounts, public attention to these breaches may be limited. The majority of exchange hackers are not caught, leaving customers with little closure. There is rarely any physical evidence or real-world aftermath like traumatized bank tellers or perp walks.
Some hacks, however, have pleasant endings. A hacker stole $600 million from the cryptocurrency platform Poly Network in a strange, public occurrence. Instead of blaming the thief, Poly Network instead appealed to his better nature by calling him “Mr. White Hat,” which is a cybersecurity term for a researcher working to make things more secure. Poly Network thanked him for exposing a flaw in its code and asked for the money back. The hacker eventually relented and returned it all.
When big law enforcement organizations tackle a major cryptocurrency breach, they typically attempt to track down every lead, which is a time-consuming procedure that moves much slower than the offenders they’re pursuing.
Europol has been of an increase in data breaches, including those that involve hackers stealing digital assets. However, forming a strong case is a time-consuming and laborious process that doesn’t keep up with the rate of attacks.
“We have a slew of investigations in progress right now,” Georges added. “They take a long time to complete because we also want to dismantle the entire criminal network,” she continued. “These instances frequently crossover with one another.
“They might go on indefinitely,” she added. “These inquiries generally take a long time.”
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