Harvard University student hijacks computer to mine dogecoin currency

University bans access to supercomputer after researcher abuses his privileges to amass a haul of the digital currency, an alternative to bitcoin

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 11:38am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 5:07am

A Harvard University researcher made off with a lucrative haul of a virtual currency after hijacking a supercomputer at the prestigious academic institution in the United States.

The university was swift to slap a "permanent" ban removing access to the computing research facility after the anonymous individual abused his privileges on the Odyssey Cluster supercomputer to "mine" dogecoin, a low-value virtual currency alternative to the better known bitcoin.

Dogecoin has amassed a large fan following, prompting expectations of a price increase similar to that of bitcoin.

The researcher, using computing power to "mine" the currency - creating coins using complex computer algorithms - even prompted a price surge around February 12, one market watcher said.

In an internal e-mail, seen by a South China Morning Post reporter, Assistant Dean for Research Computing James Cuff said a community member had spotted an "anomaly" in a set of computer nodes.

"Long story short, a 'dogecoin' [bitcoin derivative] mining operation had been set up on the Odyssey Cluster consuming significant resources in order to participate in a mining contest," said Cuff.

Tim Peterson, a post-doctoral fellow in the systems biology department at Harvard University, said: "This kid was trying to capitalise on the fact that there was a known date when half of the dogecoin would be mined. So whatever he mined before that would spike in value.

"There was a big push, and the price really surged in the days leading up to the [mining date], and then initial first buzz was really peaking a few weeks ago, so I think it was a combination of both."

David Simmons-Duffin, a Harvard PhD graduate from the class of 2012, explained: "The Odyssey Cluster is a bunch of computers networked together in a way that allows fast data transfer between different processors.

"Although each individual processor isn't much more powerful than your personal laptop, having many processors together can be a huge benefit when doing scientific computing."

Cuff went on in the e-mail to say that non-scientific use of such shared resources is explicitly denied.

"The individual involved in this particular operation no longer has access to any and all research computing facilities on a fully permanent basis," he said in a warning to all staff and students. "Don't let this happen to you."

A spokesman for Harvard University confirmed the incident took place, but did not confirm that the internal e-mail was sent from Cuff. He did not respond when asked if the university would seize the dogecoins that had been mined.

Peterson, an investor and supporter of the dogecoin currency, said it was formed by "the idea of sharing wealth, and bitcoin has a reputation for accumulating wealth and a hoarder's community ... Because the value [of dogecoin] is low, it is non-threatening and has a friendlier reputation."

"It allows a lot of people with not a lot of money to get involved … With bitcoin you have to pay US$500 or US$1,000 to get one coin."

Garrick Hileman, an economics historian at the London School of Economics, explained that the rise of alternative cryptocurrencies highlighted how bitcoin is facing stiff competition.

He said: "While dogecoin may have started as a joke, its quick rise in value and active software development community now has people taking it seriously."

The academic also noted that while bitcoin's position was secure in the near-term, it was not clear whether it would be able to maintain its privileged position.

One dogecoin is currently worth US$0.0009.