Scientists working at one of Russia’s top-secret nuclear facilities have been arrested by state police for allegedly trying to use the site’s powerful research computers to mine cryptocurrencies.
According to reports from BBC News and Agence France-Presse, the incident took place at the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov, one of a number of “closed cities” created by the Soviet Union solely for the purpose of nuclear research. These cities are off-limits to travelers and aren’t even marked on Russian maps. A spokesperson for the facility, Tatiana Zalesskaya, told the Interfax news agency that several researchers had been detained after making “an attempt to use the work computing facilities for personal ends, including for so-called mining.”
“Their activities were stopped in time,” said Zalesskaya. She added: “The bungling miners have been detained by the competent authorities. As far as I know, a criminal case has been opened regarding them.”
Some reports have suggested the group was trying to use the center’s supercomputer to mine bitcoin. Mining cryptocurrencies in this way requires huge amounts of computing power, and it’s common for miners to seek out cheap — and often illegal — sources of digital muscle; for example, by hijacking strangers’ computers.
Whether or not the group targeted the center’s supercomputer or regular PCs isn’t clear. However, it seems that at least some of the machines they wanted to use had been air-gapped for security — meaning they were kept permanently offline to keep them safe from hackers. When the scientists tried to connect the computers to the internet to start their mining operations, they accidentally alerted the facility’s security team, who then contacted Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
According to spokesperson Zalesskaya, any similar attempts in the future “will be harshly put down [...] This activity technically has no future and is punishable as a crime.”