Salon to readers: Let us use your PC to mine cryptocurrency in exchange for an ad-free website

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The news comes as cybercriminals increasingly make use of cryptomining services such as Coinhive to generate ill-gotten funds.

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As news organisations continue to seek and experiment with alternatives to ad revenue due to the popularity of ad-blocking software, media company Salon has come up with one way to do so – mining cryptocurrency. The San Francisco-based site has begun asking its readers that use ad-blocking software to allow them some spare computing power to mine Monero coins in exchange for an ad-free website.

“Like most media companies, Salon pays its bills through advertising and we profoundly appreciate our advertising partners and sponsors,” Salon said in a note to readers. “Like most media sites, ad-blockers cut deeply into our revenue and create a more one-sided relationship between reader and publisher.

“We realise that specific technological developments now mean that it is not merely the reader’s eyeballs that have value to our site — it’s also your computer’s ability to make calculations, too. Indeed, your computer itself can help support our ability to pay our editors and journalists.”

Users that visit the website with an ad blocker enabled are now met with a pop-up notification that asks them to disable the software or “block ads by allowing Salon to use your unused computing power”.

“We intend to use a small percentage of your spare processing power to contribute to the advancement of technological discovery, evolution, and innovation,” Salon says in a new FAQ. “For our beta program, we’ll start by applying your processing power to help support the evolution and growth of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies.”

Salon is using the infamous cryptominer Coinhive to “use your processor for calculations” that are “securely executed in your browser’s sandbox”.

“Mining uses more of your resources which means your computer works a bit harder and uses more electricity than if you were just passively browsing the site with ads,” Salon notes. “Nothing is ever installed on your computer and Salon never has access to your personal information or files.

“Your fan may turn on for the same reason that your computer’s fans turn on when doing any other intensive task, like playing a computer game or watching a full-screen video that makes your computer work harder and use more electricity to process.”

Once users’ close the browser window or visit another website, the cryptocurrency mining stops. Salon’s site will remember the visitor’s opt-in preference for up to 24 hours before prompting the user again when they later visit the website.

“Salon never has access to your personal files or information during this process. In contrast, traditional online ads can collect far more information about who you are based on the information on your computer,” the site notes.

Security researcher Troy Mursch tweeted that he decided to opt-in to the site’s new revenue model using Coinhive.

Although Coinhive has marketed itself as a legitimate way for website owners to mine revenue, its reputation has been dragged as cybercriminals increasingly make use of the service in cryptojacking attacks. In recent months, a slew of websites, browser extensions, apps and even YouTube ads have been exploited by hackers to secretly mine cryptocurrency using miners such as Coinhive.

Some websites found mining digital currencies without the knowledge or express consent of users include Showtime, the Pirate Bay, UFC’s website, Starbucks Argentina and Politifact.

Over the weekend, hackers tweaked an accessibility plugin named BrowseAloud to hijack over 4000 websites in the US, UK, Australia and other nations – including government domains – and force them into mining cryptocurrency using Coinhive.

“It’s an alternative way for Salon to pay its costs, and – quite frankly – may turn out to be more attractive to some people than taking the risk of allowing ads to appear,” security researcher Graham Cluley wrote. “My guess is that we’ll see more and more mainstream media websites toy with the idea of mining cryptocurrencies while ad-blocking users read their articles. Whether it’s something that will prove popular in the long term, however, remains to be seen.”

I’ve opted-in to @Salon’s new revenue model using #Coinhive. 100% of my CPU is now used by them to mine cryptocurrency. As my computer slows to crawl and quickly begins to heat up, I struggle to navigate their website. pic.twitter.com/blWLBZ8Eac

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