back to article That string of supercomputer hacks last week? Of course it was a crypto-coin-mining get-rich-quick scheme

A British supercomputer hacked last week was among a group of big beasts targeted around the world to mine cryptocurrency, it has emerged. The European Grid Infrastructure (EGI) team reported this week that, in addition to the hijacked user accounts on the ARCHER cluster at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, supercomputers …

  1. yoganmahew

    The weakest link in the toolchain

    If the payloads are compiled on site, does that suggest the CI toolchain and automated CD are the weak link?

    1. Giovani Tapini

      Re: The weakest link in the toolchain

      its a uni, so probably done by script on the target.

      Im more concerned about how they got there. Seems to be that personal devices were compromised to steal ssh keys.

      they need to consider 2fa...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The weakest link in the toolchain

        It's HPC it is not like an ordinary server. Firstly they are academics. Secondly you can't run an HPC system without access to compilers. A significant proportion of the users are bringing their own code and need to compile it up. Trying to replicate the environment on their personal machines to produce code that will work on the HPC is really quite tricky and many HPC users have access to multiple HPC sites (which is how it has spread among HPC systems) so way way easier to compile on the machine. Second we prefer our users to use vendor compilers because they can typically squeeze an extra 5-10% out of the machine, and there is never enough compute cycles.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Many moons ago, when I was a super-computer specialist, I was asked to develop a little app to report for which process was using which amount of CPU, then link all to projects.

    This was of course on a top class super-comp ...

    First run of the app was surprising: about 70% of last month CPU usage was "rshd". Yes, whole month, day and night.

    After a WTF session with the super's admin team, it turned out one of the dude working on this super never understood a thing.

    In lieu of running all the big loops all on the super, he was running the main loop on his workstation, and would launch an rsh to the super for each iteration, millions of them. And on the poor super, the iteration would last one milli-sec but take many seconds to rsh to ...

    Lots of laugh. And much very expensive CPU power lost ...

  3. IGotOut Silver badge

    So not...

    not the Chinese hacking for for coronavirus info, or nuclear info, or climate change was reported last week then?

    Pick foreign baddie of the month, point the finger of blame without evidence.

    Just a good old fashion money grab.

  4. batfink

    At least this shows some knowhow

    Well at these someone is using some proper skills and understanding - it's not just the usual script kiddies at work.

    If only they'd used their powers for good...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There is very limited evidence of crypto mining going on in the current wave of hacks. It makes little sense because almost all crypto currencies require such large amounts of CUP cycles you would be spotted before you could mine any useful quantity of currency.

    1. Jaybus

      Physicist Dr. Robert Helling at LMU Munich, one of the sites similarly attacked, published a preliminary analysis of the malware at He discovered altered files in /etc/fonts. In particular, the .fonts file was an executable with SUID root that simply gave a root shell (running bash). Another file in /etc/fonts named .low was larger and obfuscated by XORing. He was able to decode some of this and determine that it had lists of files in /var/log, presumably because it cleaned the logs. Also, they likely were able to steal additional SSH private keys from user directories, enabling them to login as many different legitimate users to further obscure the tracing.

      Clearly, a sophisticated attack. Less clear is how they managed to implant the rootkit in /etc/fonts in the first place. Stealing a SSH private key from someone's personal device doesn't explain it. They could get a shell as a legitimate user, but still should not allow planting the rootkit in /etc/fonts. I wonder if their IPS only looks for remote password guessing attacks and not from sudo attempts.

      In any case, it looks like they were able to delete logging and probably more, so the evidence of crypto mining, or anything else they did, is of course going to be limited. There is probably a gateway or router from which investigators could determine IP traffic, and that would reveal the extent of crypto mining.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Local privilege escalation. Possibly CVE-2019-15666, and lots of HPC uses GPFS so CVE-2020-4273 would be a possibility. The evidence of crypto mining is very weak and most likely a smoke screen for far more nefarious activities. There is evidence of data extraction to Chinese IP addresses...

  6. John H Woods Silver badge

    CPU cycles

    Don't most HPC tasks consume lots of CPU? If you compromise the account of a known userA who runs the known taskB, how will you know that the task isn't doing what it says it's doing: surely you just see the processB, owner userA, at roughly where you expect in the process monitor?

    This sort of hack could be very damaging because it's not just compromised accounts - what if they've compromised some of your code? Every time you run it you get bogus results ... and someone else gets cryptocurrency.

    EDIT: I know nothing whatsoever about HPC, although I'd love to.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: CPU cycles

      Because on an HPC system you have one process to one core as a rule. Typically you will have somewhere between 85-90% of your cores busy at any one time. The slack is mostly down to differing job sizes, and when someone submits a large job you have to hold nodes in reserve waiting for enough to become available to schedule the large job.

      Now sure there are some background processes but lets say you have 40 cores in a node then a load average more than 45, say 50 tops will produce an alert because something is wrong. As a sys admin you would be investigating pretty dam sharpish if all or even a significantly number of your nodes where showing a sustained load average above the number of cores on the node.

      1. John H Woods Silver badge

        Re: CPU cycles

        ah, I see, thanks very much.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I only read The Register...

    ...for the pictures.

    That's not true, but amusing library pics like that are what brings all the nerds to your yard.

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