The scheme took place at the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov, just south-east of Moscow. This is one of Russia’s “closed cities” where only authorized personnel are permitted. This facility in particular is the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s first working nuclear weapon. It still does nuclear research, and to that end, researchers deployed a shiny new supercomputer there in 2011. It was capable of one petaflop or processing, making it the 12th most powerful system in the world. Because of the classified nature of its work, Russia has not released many details on its design. We just know that it’s based on x86 CPUs, and it’s probably more powerful now than it was in 2011.
The alleged perpetrators of the mining scheme apparently thought they could put some of that processing power to use generating cryptocurrency. It takes a lot of processing power and electricity to generate valuable virtual coins, so miners either have to set up shop where power is very cheap or consider some less-than-ethical means. Although, even a supercomputer probably wouldn’t be able to mine much Bitcoin right now on its conventional hardware.
Due to the sensitive nature of work done at the facility, many of the computer systems are disconnected from the internet, known as air-gapping. The scientists were caught when attempting to connect the secure internal network to the internet. Mining rigs need to connect to other devices on a cryptocurrency’s network in order to verify transactions and show “proof of work” to get new coins.
The facility’s security team notified Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) upon detecting the rogue connections, and the scientists were arrested. A spokesperson for the Federal Nuclear Center says that a criminal case against the scientists is now ongoing, and there’s every reason to expect Russian authorities will throw the proverbial book at the hopeful miners. So in case you were thinking about hijacking a classified Russian supercomputer to mine cryptocurrency, you might want to look elsewhere.
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