*UPDATE: This story has been updated to include more information about the charges that Eric Wichmann and Josh O'Steen could face.
COLUMBIA — Two MU computer science students have been accused of running an unauthorized Bitcoin mining operation on computers in the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
MU Police Capt. Brian Weimer said that Eric Wichmann and Josh O'Steen were arrested by MU police Friday on suspicion of tampering with computer data. Weimer said they were arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor violation of the state tampering statute, though tampering can also be a class D felony.* Wichman and O'Steen were released the same day on a summons.
Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Brouck Jacobs said there was no decision yet whether Wichmann and O'Steen will be formally charged since the MU police report had not yet hit his desk.
Bitcoin is a new digital currency that operates independent of any government or central authority. Instead of relying on third-party financial institutions to verify each electronic transactions, Bitcoin uses a peer-to-peer network of computers to maintain a public record of all exchanges of the digital currency, which is called the block chain.
These networked computers constantly run an open-source application that works out a complex math problem, resulting in an update to the current block of most recent transactions, which is then broadcasted to peer computers. The process is called "mining" because the operators of whichever computer completes the current block are awarded newly minted Bitcoins.
MU Journalism department IT Support Specialist Justin Giles said he and his co-workers started investigating the case when a lab instructor noticed that one of the iMacs in 45 Walter Williams was behaving oddly. They quickly discovered that someone had bypassed an administrative password and installed the unauthorized mining application on eight separate computers — five more in 45 Walter Williams and two more in the Futures Lab. Giles said the unauthorized activity was a breach of the UM System's Acceptable Use Policy.
The security compromise was only possible through physical access to the computers. A combination of activity logs on the computers and security cameras in the building were used to identify suspects.
Wichmann and O'Steen were arrested Friday in connection with the unauthorized application.
Giles said it was the first known incident of this kind in the 10 years he has been working for MU's Journalism School.