Hackers stole $1.4 billion this year using crypto bridges. Here’s why it’s happening

Mining the world’s second most valuable cryptocurrency at Evobits IT SRL An engineer inspects AMD graphics processing units (GPUs) from Sapphire Technology Ltd. at the Evobits crypto farm in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2021. The worlds second most valuable cryptocurrency, Ethereum, has risen 75% this year, overtaking its biggest rival Bitcoin. Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Crypto investors have been hit hard this year by hacks and scams. One reason is that cybercriminals have found a particularly useful way to reach them: bridges.

Blockchain bridges, which thinly connect networks to enable rapid exchanges of tokens, are gaining popularity as a way for crypto users to transact. But by using them, crypto enthusiasts bypass a centralized exchange and use a system that is largely unprotected.

A total of around $1.4 billion has been lost to breaches on these cross-chain bridges since the start of the year, according to figures from blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis. The biggest single event was a record $615 million snatch from Ronin, a deck supporting the popular non-fungible token game Axie Infinity, which allows users to earn money by playing.

There was also the $320 million stolen from Wormhole, a crypto bridge backed by Wall Street high-frequency trading firm Jump Trading. In June, Harmony’s Horizon Bridge suffered a $100 million attack. And last week, nearly $200 million was seized by hackers in a breach targeting Nomad.

“Blockchain bridges have become the low-hanging fruit for cybercriminals, with billions of dollars of crypto assets locked within them,” said blockchain analytics firm co-founder and chief scientist Tom Robinson. Elliptic, in an interview. “These bridges have been hacked by hackers in a variety of ways, suggesting that their level of security has not kept pace with the value of the assets they hold.”

Bridge exploits are happening at a striking rate, given that it is such a new phenomenon. According to data from Chainalysis, the amount stolen in bridge robberies represents 69% of the funds stolen in crypto-related hacks so far in 2022.

How Bridges Work

why they are attacked

The vulnerability of bridges can be attributed in part to sloppy engineering.

The Harmony Horizon Bridge hack, for example, was possible due to the limited number of validators needed to approve transactions. The hackers only had to compromise two accounts out of a total of five to obtain the passwords needed to withdraw funds.

A similar situation happened with Ronin. Hackers only had to convince five out of nine validators on the network to hand over their private keys to access the cryptography locked inside the system.

In Nomad’s case, the deck was much easier for hackers to manipulate. The attackers were able to enter any value into the system and then withdraw funds, even if there were not enough assets deposited in the bridge. They needed no programming skills, and their exploits caused copycats to pile up, leading to the eighth-largest crypto theft of all time, according to Elliptic.

Why they are important

Bridges are an essential tool in the decentralized finance (DeFi) industry, which is the crypto alternative to the banking system.

With DeFi, instead of centralized players calling the shots, money exchanges are handled by a programmable piece of code called a smart contract. This contract is written on a public blockchain, such as ethereum or solana, and it runs when certain conditions are met, negating the need for a central middleman.

“We can’t just move these assets,” Hetman said. “That’s why we need blockchain bridges.”

As the DeFi space continues to evolve, developers will need to make blockchains interoperable to ensure that assets and data can flow smoothly between networks.

“Without them, assets are locked to native chains,” said Auston Bunsen, co-founder of QuikNode, which provides blockchain infrastructure for developers and enterprises.

But they are risky.

“They are effectively ungoverned,” said David Carlisle, regulatory affairs manager at Elliptic. They are “highly vulnerable to hacks or being used in crimes like money laundering”.

Criminals have transferred at least $540 million in ill-gotten gains through a bridge called RenBridge since 2020, according to new research Elliptic provided to CNBC.

“A major question is whether bridges will be subject to regulation, as they act much like crypto exchanges, which are already regulated,” Carlisle said.

This week, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, announced sanctions against Tornado Cash, a popular cryptocurrency mixer, banning Americans from using the service. Mixers are tools that mix a user’s tokens with a pool of other funds to conceal the identity of the individuals and entities involved.

Carlisle said it was becoming clear that “US regulators are poised to crack down on DeFi services that facilitate illicit activity.”

LOOK: Immunefi’s Adrian Hetman explains how hackers stole $200 million


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