“If it’s a new thing, we want to be there first and make our mark,” Hoffner said. “We are a small company in tune with innovation.”
Visitors to Salon.com who have an ad-blocker enabled now see a pop-up asking them to donate their spare computing power to generating monero, a cryptocurrency known for its privacy-protecting properties.
Readers who opt into the plan must then permit a third-party program called Coinhive to run in the background of their Web browser.
The technology is designed to consume a reader's unused processor power to help perform the decryption needed to create new monero coins, which are currently worth about $233 each. If enough readers participate in the program, Salon reasons, it could lead to meaningful revenue.
“We realize 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,” Salon says in an FAQ posted to its site. “Indeed, your computer itself can help support our ability to pay our editors and journalists.”
Salon's embrace of Coinhive comes at a sensitive moment for the software.
While running, Coinhive's software does not perform other functions or gain access to a computer's files or data — it just uses the processing power of the PC. And it deactivates when visitors close their browser or navigate away from the site that's running it.
But the software raises a moral quandary, analysts say, because the sites that run Coinhive are not required to disclose that fact to visitors. Although destinations such as Salon go out of their way to inform users about the software — and run it on a visitor's machine only if he or she accepts — the same technology can be abused if a website instructs Coinhive to run on visitors' PCs without their knowledge. That could essentially sap processing power that a user might want for other tasks. Taxing a PC in this way could also cause a spike in energy usage, and by extension, higher electricity bills for the user.
“You'll be unaware until you notice your device running slowly and getting hot,” said Troy Mursch, a security researcher who has been monitoring Coinhive for months. The version of Coinhive used without consent essentially amounts to malware, Mursch said.
That description has only become more apt over time, as hackers have learned how to exploit Coinhive by forcing even innocent websites to run the otherwise legitimate application unawares. This type of attack, known as "cryptojacking," takes advantage of unsuspecting visitors to an unsuspecting site and recruits them all into generating cryptocurrency. Major U.K. and U.S. government websites have been hit by cryptojacking in recent days. In October, the fact-checking site PolitiFact was also the victim of a cryptojacking attack powered by Coinhive's software.
The creators of Coinhive have said that they did not anticipate their software being misused in illegitimate cryptocurrency schemes and that the money generated by the attack on the government websites — all of $24 — has not been paid out to those responsible. They told Motherboard that the entire Coinhive project has yielded “a few million USD in total.”
The legitimate use of Coinhive could open a broader discussion about the economics of online content, some analysts say.
Whereas online ads can be obtrusive and distracting, allowing websites to turn excess computing power into money could be a low-profile alternative.
"[Coinhive] is a white-label solution,” said Hoffner, arguing that many fringe technologies often begin with illicit connotations but gradually become mainstream. “You have to take a historical perspective when a disruptive technology comes to market.”
Should more websites shift to this business model, it could have outside consequences, such as greater energy consumption. But, Salon said in its FAQ, putting the world's excess computing power to use could also have its benefits.
“Some scholars,” the site said, “have proposed using spare computing power to help secure voting and verify the integrity of democratic elections.”