Cryptocurrency Exchanges Are the Biggest Targets of 51% Attacks

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Ethereum Classic (ETC), currently the 18th largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, fell victim to the much dreaded 51 percent attack on January 8, 2019.

A 51 percent attack occurs when a single entity owns over half of a cryptocurrency’s hash rate or mining power, giving them the ability to reverse the blockchain to a prior state for self-gain. A few years ago, when the cryptocurrency industry was still largely nascent, 51 percent attacks were only theorized and never actually witnessed.

However, the onslaught of new digital currencies since late 2016 has resulted in several blockchain networks having a relatively tiny amount of total hash rate. As a result, smaller, less valuable cryptocurrencies such as Verge (XCG) have been repeatedly exploited.

Once an attacker gains control over a majority hash rate, they can reverse recent transactions by mining a completely different block and recording it to the blockchain. In technical terms, this is known as a ‘double spend.’

Exchanges Worst Affected?

Digital currency exchanges are perhaps the biggest targets of 51 percent attacks, according to Haseeb Qureshi, a general partner at the MetaStable Capital cryptocurrency hedge fund. Since these companies allow users to trade a certain cryptocurrency token for another, or even fiat currency, an attacker could liquidate a certain amount of tokens and immediately dispense the same tokens to themselves or another wallet.

Qureshi explained in his Twitter thread,

The investor further noted that most average users are likely not going to be affected by a 51 percent attack, especially if it is extremely short lived. In a follow-up tweet, he said,

ETC Security Breach

Notably, the 51 percent attack endured by the Ethereum Classic cryptocurrency only cost the attacker around $5,000 per hour to execute. This is because mining pools such as Nicehash effectively rent out large amounts of processing power for a fixed duration. The amount of money required to attack Bitcoin in a similar fashion would be a fair bit higher since the cryptocurrency has exponentially higher existing hash rate and can only be mined with ASIC hardware.

The person behind ETC’s 51 percent attack is said to have made off with around $250,000. While large exchanges such as Coinbase picked up on the attack and turned off ETC trading, a host of smaller ones remained vulnerable.

Do you think digital currency exchanges should react faster to 51% attacks, especially with user funds at stake? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!


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Rahul Nambiampurath is an India-based Digital Marketer who got attracted to Bitcoin and the blockchain in 2014. Ever since, he's been an active member of the community. He has a Masters degree in Finance. <a href="">Email me!</a>

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