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What is monero? New cryptocurrency of choice for cyber criminals

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When the FBI successfully breached a crypto wallet held by the Colonial Pipeline hackers by following the money trail on bitcoin’s blockchain, it was a wake-up call for any cyber criminals who thought transacting in cryptocurrency automatically protected them from scrutiny.

One of the core tenets of bitcoin is that its public ledger, which stores all token transactions in its history, is visible to everyone. This is why more hackers are turning to coins like dash, zcash, and monero, which have additional anonymity built into them.

Monero, in particular, is increasingly the cryptocurrency of choice for the world’s top ransomware criminals.

“The more savvy criminals are using monero,” said Rick Holland, chief information security officer at Digital Shadows, a cyberthreat intelligence company.

Created in 2014

Monero was released in 2014 by a consortium of developers, many of whom chose to remain anonymous. As spelled out in its white paper, “privacy and anonymity” are the most important aspects of this digital currency.

The privacy token operates on its own blockchain, which hides virtually all transaction details. The identity of the sender and recipient, as well as the transaction amount itself, are disguised.

Because of these anonymity features, monero allows cyber criminals greater freedom from some of the tracking tools and mechanisms that the bitcoin blockchain offers.

“On the bitcoin blockchain, you can see what wallet address transacted, how many bitcoin, where it came from, where it’s going,” explained Fred Thiel, former chairman of Ultimaco, one of the largest cryptography companies in Europe, which has worked with Microsoft, Google and others on post-quantum encryption.

“With monero, [the blockchain] obfuscates the wallet address, the amount of the transactions, who the counter-party was, which is pretty much exactly what the bad actors want,” he said.

With monero, they’re obfuscating the wallet address, the amount of the transactions, who the counter-party was, which is pretty much exactly what the bad actors want.

Fred Thiel

CEO, Marathon Digital Holdings

While bitcoin still dominates ransomware demands, more threat actors are starting to ask for monero, according to Marc Grens, president of DigitalMint, a company that helps corporate victims pay ransoms. 

“We’ve seen REvil…give discounts or request payments in monero, just in the past couple months,” continued Holland.

Monero was also a popular choice on AlphaBay, a massive underground marketplace popular up until it was shut down in 2017.

“It’s almost like we’re seeing, at least from a cyber criminal perspective, a resurgence…in monero, because it has inherently more privacy than some of the other coins out there,” Holland said of monero’s recent rise in popularity among actors in the ransomware space.

Monero’s limitations

There are, however, a few major barriers when it comes to the mainstreaming of monero.

For one, it’s not as liquid as other cryptocurrencies – many regulated exchanges have chosen not to list it due to regulatory concerns, explained Mati Greenspan, portfolio manager and Quantum Economics founder. “It certainly isn’t enjoying as much from the recent wave of institutional investments,” he said.

In practice, that means that it’s harder for cyber criminals to get paid directly in the currency.

“If you’re a corporation and you want to acquire a bunch of monero to pay somebody, it’s very hard to do,” Thiel told CNBC. 

The digital currency could also be more vulnerable to regulation at its on-and-off-ramps, which is the bridge between fiat cash and crypto tokens. 

“I would wager to say the U.S. and other regulators are going to shut them [monero] down pretty hard,” said Thiel.

One way they could go about that: telling an exchange that if they list monero, they risk losing their license.  

But while the U.S. government can indeed keep monero at bay by marginalizing liquidity points, Castle Island Ventures founding partner Nic Carter believes that markets which allow peer-to-peer transfers of monero to fiat will always be hard to regulate. 

There’s also nothing to keep hackers within U.S. jurisdiction. Criminals could easily choose to carry out all of their transactions overseas, in places that aren’t subject to the kind of controls American regulators might put in place.

Bitcoin still rules ransomware

Cyber insurance is another reason why bitcoin is still the currency of choice for most ransomware attacks.

“Insurance is so important in this space, and insurers often refuse to reimburse a ransom payment if it’s been in monero,” said former CIA case officer Peter Marta, who now advises companies about cyber risk management as a partner with law firm Hogan Lovells. 

“One of the things that insurers will always ask for is what type of due diligence the victim company conducted, before making the payment…to try to minimize the chance that the payment goes to an entity on the sanctions list,” explained Marta. 

Traceability is more easily accomplished with bitcoin, given that its blockchain lays bare transaction amounts and the addresses of both the sender and recipients taking part in the exchange. There is also an established infrastructure already in place for officials to monitor these transactions.

Authorities keep lists of bitcoin wallets, which are tied to different sanctions regimes.

While monero does offer a greater degree of privacy over bitcoin, Holland points out that threat actors have mastered certain techniques to anonymize transactions in bitcoin, in order to obscure the chain of custody. 

He says that cyber criminals often turn to a mixing or tumbling service, where they can combine the illicit funds with clean crypto to essentially make a new type of bitcoin, at which point, they turn to currency swaps. 

“Just like you would do dollars to pounds…they may go bitcoin, to monero, then back to bitcoin, and then get a bitcoin ATM card, where they can just cash out dollars with it,” explained Holland.

So even though bitcoin’s blockchain is public, there are still ways to make it difficult for investigators to trace transactions to their ultimate destination. 

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Earnings, Federal Reserve are next big catalysts as stocks enter week ahead on an upswing

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Traders at the New York Stock Exchange, July 20, 2021.

Source: NYSE

Here comes one of the biggest market weeks of the summer.

First, the Federal Reserve meets Tuesday and Wednesday. While no action is expected, there could be some mention of the central bank’s possible wind down of its bond program. That could move the markets since the tapering of the central bank’s bond purchases is seen as the first step on the way to interest rate hikes.

Then there are about 165 S&P 500 companies releasing earnings reports, including the biggest tech names— Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook. Tesla is reporting, as are industrial heavy weights Boeing and Caterpillar. There are slew of consumer names, including Procter & Gamble and McDonald’s.

There is also important economic news. The second quarter is expected to be the peak period for post-pandemic growth, and gross domestic product for the quarter will be released Thursday. On Friday, the Fed’s favorite inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditure inflation index, is released.

Fresh highs for major indexes

The three major U.S. stock indexes enter the busy week with fresh closing records. The Dow closed above 35,000 for the first time on Friday. The S&P 500 gained 1% to close at 4,411.79, and the Nasdaq Composite ended the day up 1%.

“I think earnings are going to be the show, and if the pattern we’ve seen thus far continues next week, and it’s likely it will, that’s going to find a market that has a path of least resistance to the upside and I think that’s good news,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities.

According to Refinitiv, earnings for the second quarter are looking to be up 78.1%.

“It’s going to be crazy,” said Hogan. “I think the order of magnitude of earnings beats is still underappreciated, and I think that will continue next week: 87% of companies are beating estimates.”

Hogan said early in earnings season, stocks of companies that beat expectations did not react, but now they are and that should continue. The fact a handful of the biggest market cap stocks — like Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet — are reporting so close to each other could have an impact.

“This is like the World Series of earnings smack in the middle of summer,” he said.

Stocks rebound

Investors will also be watching the behavior of markets themselves. Stocks ended the week with solid gains, but the bruising sell-off Monday has left its mark. Some strategists say it could have been a warning sign for more turbulence later in the quarter.

Stocks took their cue from the 10-year Treasury yield, which was falling Monday on fears the delta variant of Covid could slow global growth. The yield hit a low of 1.12% early Tuesday before reversing. As the benchmark yield rose, stocks rallied.

For now, stocks seem to be set for more gains. The Dow closed the past week at 35,061.55, up about 1%. The S&P 500 gained 1.9% for the week, ending at 4,411.79. The Nasdaq climbed 2.8% week-to-date, and the small-cap Russell 2000 rose 2.1%.

Communications services, which includes internet names, was the best performing sector in the past week with a 3.2% gain. Tech was also strong, up 2.8%. Consumer discretionary was also a top sector, up 2.9%. Cyclical industrials and material lagged with fractional gains, and energy was slightly lower.

Scott Redler, chief strategic officer with T3Live.com, said the Big Tech names like Apple and Microsoft are already doing well ahead of earnings, so it will be important to see how they trade.

“Some things are priced for perfection and some aren’t,” he said. “Microsoft is already at an all-time high. It’s priced for perfection. It will be interesting to see if Apple can hold and stay above $150.” Apple closed at $148.56 per share Friday.

Fed ‘taper talk’

Ben Jeffery, U.S. rates strategist at BMO, said Treasury yields could find a catalyst in the Fed. He expects the 10-year to begin moving down again, and says it could possibly touch a low of 1.10%. The 10-year was at 1.28% Friday afternoon.

Strategists do not expect to see much new in the Federal Reserve’s statement. They await comments from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell for guidance on the central bank’s move toward tapering back its quantitative easing program.

The Fed is expected to announce that it is officially talking about winding down the program well before it actually starts. Many Fed watchers believe that guidance will come in late August, at the central bank’s Jackson Hole symposium, or later in the fall.

“I think it will be interesting to see how dovish Powell tries to be with the delta variant risk and concerns about that,” said Jeffery.

Luke Tilley, chief economist at Wilmington Trust, does not expect much new from Powell this week. “I’m really targeting Jackson Hole as the most likely candidate for a pivot point for policy and communication,” he said. “However, next week’s meeting could set the stage for that with some statements that point us toward some improvement in the economy. They’ll be highlighting the new risks of the delta variant, and that’s the risk we think they point out.”

Slowing the bond program is important since it is a signal that the Fed is on the road to reversing its easy policies, including ultimately its zero policy rate. Tilley said the central bank will probably take a year to wind down its $120 billion a month in bond purchases, and then the door is open to rate hikes.

Investors will also be watching second quarter GDP to see how much strength there is in the economy.

According to CNBC/Moody’s Analytics rapid update, a survey of economists expects second quarter growth to grow by an average 9.7%. It is expected to be the peak period for growth, and the average forecast for third quarter growth is 8.3%.

Tilley said he expects growth for the 2021 year of 7% to 7.5%.

Week ahead calendar

Monday

Earnings: Tesla, Lockheed Martin, F5 Networks, Check Point Software, Hasbro, LVMH, Otis Worldwide, Ameriprise

10:00 a.m. New home sales

Tuesday

Fed begins 2-day meeting

Earnings: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, 3M, Visa, Advanced Micro Devices, General Electric, Boston Scientific, PulteGroup, Raytheon, JetBlue, Archer Daniels Midland, Chubb, Mondelez, Starbucks, Hawaiian Holdings, Waste Management, Corning, Sherwin-Williams, UPS, Stanley Black and Decker, Teradyne, Cheesecake Factory

8:30 a.m. Durable goods

9:00 a.m. FHFA home prices

9:00 a.m. Case-Shiller home prices

10:00 a.m. Consumer confidence

Wednesday

Earnings: Boeing, Facebook, Pfizer, Ford, Qualcomm, McDonald’s, Bristol-Myers Squibb, PayPal, General Dynamics, GlaxoSmithKline, Norfolk Southern, Automatic Data, CME Group, Garmin, Moody’s, Steve Madden, Penske Auto Group, Hess, Aflac, Canadian Pacific Railway, Fortune Brands, Samsung

8:30 a.m. Advance economic indicators

2:00 p.m. Fed statement

2:30 p.m. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell briefing

Thursday

Earnings: Amazon, Merck, Comcast, Airbus, Anheuser-Busch InBev, MasterCard, Intercontinental Exchange, AstraZeneca, Hilton Worldwide, Northrop Grumman, Altria, Hershey, Yum Brands, American Tower, Gilead Sciences, Pinterest, Deckers Outdoors, First Solar, Beazer Homes, U.S. Steel, Molson Coors Brewing, Southern Co., Tempur Sealy, Textron, Nielsen, Valero Energy, Martin Marietta Materials

8:30 a.m. Unemployment claims

8:30 a.m. Q2 GDP

10:00 a.m. Pending home sales

Friday

Earnings: Caterpillar, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, AbbVie, Booz Allen, Lazard, Church & Dwight, Johnson Controls, Illinois Tool Works, Cabot Oil & Gas, CBOE Global Markets

8:30 a.m. Personal consumption expenditures

8:30 a.m. Employment cost index Q2

9:00 a.m. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard

9:45 a.m. Chicago PMI

10:00 a.m. Consumer sentiment

8:30 p.m. Fed Governor Lael Brainard

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Amazon is hiring a digital currency and blockchain expert

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Andy Jassy, CEO Amazon Web Services, speaks at the WSJD Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, October 25, 2016.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Amazon is looking to add a digital currency and blockchain expert to its payments team, suggesting the company could be taking a more serious look at cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

According to a recent job posting, Amazon’s payments acceptance and experience team is seeking to hire an “experienced product leader to develop Amazon’s Digital Currency and Blockchain strategy and product roadmap.”

“You will leverage your domain expertise in Blockchain, Distributed Ledger, Central Bank Digital Currencies and Cryptocurrency to develop the case for the capabilities which should be developed, drive overall vision and product strategy, and gain leadership buy-in and investment for new capabilities,” according to the job posting, which was previously reported by Insider.

Amazon confirmed the job posting.

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement: “We’re inspired by the innovation happening in the cryptocurrency space and are exploring what this could look like on Amazon. We believe the future will be built on new technologies that enable modern, fast, and inexpensive payments, and hope to bring that future to Amazon customers as soon as possible.”

The company’s cloud-computing unit, Amazon Web Services, offers a service called managed blockchain. But Amazon doesn’t accept any cryptocurrencies as payment for its products. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy (then CEO of AWS) said in 2017 that the company wasn’t particularly focused on blockchain technology, though he acknowledged Amazon was “watching it carefully.”

Digital currencies like bitcoin have grown in popularity in recent years, leading to more institutional adoption. Technology companies have also warmed up to cryptocurrency, including Facebook, which has backed a digital currency project called Diem. In May, Apple said it was looking to hire a lead negotiator to strike partnerships with “alternative payments” partners, listing cryptocurrency as one area of potential job expertise.

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Uber lost $2 billion in Didi stake this week on China crackdown threat

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Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi speaks at a product launch event in San Francisco, California on September 26, 2019.

Philip Pacheco | AFP via Getty Images

Uber’s one-time, $9.4 billion stake in Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi has dwindled by half in less than a month as China escalates its threats to U.S.-listed companies. More than $2 billion of the drop came this week.

Didi’s American depositary shares, which debuted at $14 a piece in June on the New York Stock Exchange, plunged 21% on Friday to $8.02, after falling 11% a day earlier. They had reached a closing high of $16.40 on July 1, the second day of trading.

Uber owns about 12% of Didi, making it the second-largest investor behind SoftBank. Uber obtained its stake in 2016 after selling its Chinese business to Didi in exchange for equity in its rival.

Didi’s IPO came with a lot of hype and a market cap of close to $70 billion. But the honeymoon was short-lived, as within days of the offering separate reports surfaced that Chinese officials were conducting a cybersecurity review of the company and that Didi had been advised to postpone its listing and review its network security weeks before it went public.

The news worsened this week, after Bloomberg reported that Chinese regulators are planning punishments against Didi, including a fine that could exceed the record $2.8 billion Alibaba paid earlier this year after an anti-monopoly investigation. Didi did not respond to requests for comment on the Bloomberg report earlier this week.

Penalties could include delisting or withdrawal of U.S. shares, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Chinese lawmakers have announced plans of late to limit the ability of domestic companies to list overseas.

While Uber is still showing a profit from its initial investment in Didi, valued at about $2 billion five years ago, it’s falling fast. At the end of March, Uber valued the stake at $5.9 billion in its quarterly filing. As of Friday, it’s down to $4.6 billion.

Uber isn’t the only company getting hit by Didi’s drop. SoftBank’s stake has fallen from close to $14 billion after the IPO to under $8 billion. Tencent, the Chinese internet conglomerate, has seen the value of its Didi holdings fall to $2.5 billion from about $4.3 billion.

Uber’s shares have held up this week, rising 2.3% to $47.26.

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