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Cryptocurrency is an abject disaster


This post is long overdue. Let’s get it over with.


🛑 Hey! If you write a comment about this article online, disclose your stake in cryptocurrency. I will explain why later in this post. For my part, I held <$10,000 USD worth of Bitcoin prior to 2016, plus small amounts of altcoins. Today my stake in all cryptocurrency is $0.


Starting on May 1st, users of sourcehut’s CI service will be required to be on a paid account, a change which will affect about half of all builds.sr.ht users.1 Over the past several months, everyone in the industry who provides any kind of free CPU resources has been dealing with a massive outbreak of abuse for cryptocurrency mining. The industry has been setting up informal working groups to pool knowledge of mitigations, communicate when our platforms are being leveraged against one another, and cumulatively wasting thousands of hours of engineering time implementing measures to deal with this abuse, and responding as attackers find new ways to circumvent them.


Cryptocurrency has invented an entirely new category of internet abuse. CI services like mine are not alone in this struggle: JavaScript miners, botnets, and all kinds of other illicit cycles are being spent solving pointless math problems to make money for bad actors. Some might argue that abuse is inevitable for anyone who provides a public service — but prior to cryptocurrency, what kind of abuse would a CI platform endure? Email spam? Block port 25. Someone might try to host their website on ephemeral VMs with dynamic DNS or something, I dunno. Someone found a way of monetizing stolen CPU cycles directly, so everyone who offered free CPU cycles for legitimate use-cases is now unable to provide those services. If not for cryptocurrency, these services would still be available.


Don’t make the mistake of thinking that these are a bunch of script kiddies. There are large, talented teams of engineers across several organizations working together to combat this abuse, and they’re losing. A small sample of tactics I’ve seen or heard of include:


Using CPU limiters to manipulate monitoring tools.

Installing crypto miners into the build systems for free software projects so that the builds appear legitimate.

Using password dumps to steal login credentials for legitimate users and then leveraging their accounts for mining.


I would give more examples, but secrecy is a necessary part of defending against this — which really sucks for an organization that otherwise strives to be as open and transparent as sourcehut does.


Cryptocurrency problems are more subtle than outright abuse, too. The integrity and trust of the entire software industry has sharply declined due to cryptocurrency. It sets up perverse incentives for new projects, where developers are no longer trying to convince you to use their software because it’s good, but because they think that if they can convince you it will make them rich. I’ve had to develop a special radar for reading product pages now: a mounting feeling of dread as a promising technology is introduced while I inevitably arrive at the buried lede: it’s more crypto bullshit. Cryptocurrency is the multi-level marketing of the tech world. “Hi! How’ve you been? Long time no see! Oh, I’ve been working on this cool distributed database file store archive thing. We’re doing an ICO next week.” Then I leave. Any technology which is not an (alleged) currency and which incorporates blockchain anyway would always work better without it.


There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cryptocurrency scams and ponzi schemes trussed up to look like some kind of legitimate offering. Even if the project you’re working on is totally cool and solves all of these problems, there are 100 other projects pretending to be like yours which are ultimately concerned with transferring money from their users to their founders. Which one are investors more likely to invest in? Hint: it’s the one that’s more profitable. Those promises of “we’re different!” are always hollow anyway. Remember the DAO? They wanted to avoid social arbitration entirely for financial contracts, but when the chips are down and their money was walking out the door, they forked the blockchain.


That’s what cryptocurrency is all about: not novel technology, not empowerment, but making money. It has failed as an actual currency outside of some isolated examples of failed national economies. No, cryptocurrency is not a currency at all: it’s an investment vehicle. A tool for making the rich richer. And that’s putting it nicely; in reality it has a lot more in common with a Ponzi scheme than a genuine investment. What “value” does solving fake math problems actually provide to anyone? It’s all bullshit.


And those few failed economies whose people are desperately using cryptocurrency to keep the wheel of their fates spinning? Those make for a good headline, but how about the rural communities whose tax dollars subsidized the power plants which the miners have flocked to? People who are suffering blackouts as their power is siphoned into computing SHA-256 as fast as possible while dumping an entire country worth of CO₂ into the atmosphere?2 No, cryptocurrency does not help failed states. It exploits them.


Even those in the (allegedly) working economies of the first world have been impacted by cryptocurrency. The price of consumer GPUs have gone sharply up in the past few months. And, again, what are these GPUs being used for? Running SHA-256 in a loop, as fast as possible. Rumor has it that hard drives are up next.


Maybe your cryptocurrency is different. But look: you’re in really poor company. When you’re the only honest person in the room, maybe you should be in a different room. It is impossible to trust you. Every comment online about cryptocurrency is tainted by the fact that the commenter has probably invested thousands of dollars into a Ponzi scheme and is depending on your agreement to make their money back. Not to mention that any attempts at reform, like proof-of-stake, are viciously blocked by those in power (i.e. those with the money) because of any risk it poses to reduce their bottom line. No, your blockchain is not different.


Cryptocurrency is one of the worst inventions of the 21st century. I am ashamed to share an industry with this exploitative grift. It has failed to be a useful currency, invented a new class of internet abuse, further enriched the rich, wasted staggering amounts of electricity, hastened climate change, ruined hundreds of otherwise promising projects, provided a climate for hundreds of scams to flourish, created shortages and price hikes for consumer hardware, and injected perverse incentives into technology everywhere. Fuck cryptocurrency.


A personal note


This rant has been a long time coming and is probably one of the most justified expressions of anger I've written for this blog yet. However, it will probably be the last one.


I realize that my blog has been a source of a lot of negativity in the past, and I regret how harsh I've been with some of the projects I've criticised. I will make my arguments by example going forward: if I think we can do better, I'll do it better, instead of criticising those who are just earnestly trying their best.


Thanks for reading 🙂 Let's keep making the software world a better place.


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“Cryptocurrency is an abject disaster” was published on April 26, 2021.


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