Bitcoin and other digital currencies are experiencing new highs and a record $166 billion of total market capitalization. More stores worldwide are starting to accept Bitcoin as method of payments and countless startups are succeeding in the fintech industry.

With such powerful tailwinds, cryptocurrencies have the potential to become a mainstream method of payment.

But if Bitcoin goes mainstream, will ransomware go mainstream too? 

Bitcoin has been used as a ransomware payment for years. Hackers (also called “cryptolockers”), encrypt the hard drives of their victims with an encryption key known only to the attacker. The hacker then asks his victims to pay a certain amount of money to a designated Bitcoin address in order to have their data decrypted.

Since Bitcoin is not yet mainstream, ransomware authors often write instructions in various languages in order to make it easier for people to pay using Bitcoin.

Threat factor multiplied

It’s remarkably difficult to find sources who are willing to talk openly about this issue.

One source on the popular Bitcointalk forum made an interesting point. He said:

“The development of a ransomware isn’t accessible to everyone and, in fact, it is not a so common behavior. Now, digital currencies are still very limited and difficult for most people, but what if this changes?”

In other words, with digital currency not yet being mainstream, even would-be hackers may not be well-versed in its use. In the event that changes, and Bitcoin becomes significantly more widely used in mainstream commerce, it’s likely the number of hackers comfortable with dealing with digital currency will increase. The result could be a boom in ransomware development.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily only apply to Bitcoin. There are a number of natively-private cryptocurrencies on the marketplace, such as Zcash and Monero. Hackers may one day start using those as their preferred payment method.

Hackers vs. HBO and Apple

HBO recently experienced a major cyberattack with hackers demanding the equivalent of $6 million in Bitcoin.

In a five-minute video, the hackers claimed that if they didn’t get paid the entire ransom, they would release 1.5 terabytes of data they stole from the network. This data includes a number of unreleased television episodes, including “Game of Thrones” and others. HBO is the 17th victim of this hacking group. Three targets so far have refused to pay. HBO paid a partial amount.

A few months ago, another hacker group claimed to have blackmailed Apple. The “Turkish Crime Family” wrote that they demanded $75,000 in Bitcoin or Ether from the company, or else would delete iCloud and iPhone data belonging to hundreds of millions of users.

Bitcoin and other digital currencies are often used in illegal activity. While the greatest part of these attacks take place on the Internet, we have to say that bitcoin has an allure for regular criminals too.

An example is when Brazilian criminals kidnapped a woman and demanded for a bitcoin payment; or when, back in 2016, a chemist threatened to kill supermarket shoppers with cyanide he bought on the dark web with bitcoins in a £2 million blackmail attempt.

Bitcoin and other illegal activities

Since the advent of the Silk Road drug market, or maybe before, Bitcoin has been used to carry out illegal actions. This is not a very good advertisement for digital currencies. Mainstream acceptance of Bitcoin could embolden would-be criminals due to its pseudo-anonymous nature.

It’s important to remember that each item, idea, or method of payment has both its advantages and disadvantages. It should be noted that the vast majority of terrorist financing, money laundering and drug dealing is conducted in fiat currencies. That does not make fiat inherently bad. Nor does Bitcoin’s use for illegal activities make it evil, either.

However, it’s important to consider possible ramifications of mainstream digital currency adoption so that we can create ways to deal with any unintended consequences. As the somewhat hackneyed expression states: forewarned is forearmed.