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Digital Guardian's Blog

Math is the New Advertising



Salon unveiled a new but controversial revenue model this week: taking unused computing power on users machines to mine cryptocurrency.

If we still had national secrets, the fact that the media business is struggling would not be one of them. Times are tough in the content mines and media companies are doing whatever they can to find new ways to get readers to pay up, including schemes such as micropayments and pay-per-article. And now there’s a new plan that mixes two of the Internet’s favorite things: cryptocurrency and ad blockers.

On Tuesday, visitors to Salon dot com began noticing that if they hit the site with an ad blocker enabled, they would get not only the familiar screen asking them to whitelist the site, but also an option to keep the ad blocker enabled but allow the site to use visitors’ spare CPU power to mine cryptocurrency. Users have to opt-in to allow this, and if they do, the site will start a process that will begin running calculations to mine cryptocurrency. The idea is to use this as a replacement for whatever money Salon is losing because of the proliferation of ad blockers.

In an explanation of the plan, Salon says that not only is the plan designed to make money for the site, it’s for the betterment of humanity, too.

“For our beta program, we’ll start by applying your processing power to mine cryptocurrencies to recoup lost ad revenue when you use an ad blocker.  We plan to further use any learnings from this to help support the evolution and growth of blockchain technology, digital currencies and other ways to better service the value exchange between content and user contribution,” the FAQ says.

“In any case, the possibilities for this sort of technology are limitless: In the future your spare computing power may go to solving the kinds of complex math problems that form the integrity of blockchains, but it can also be used for humanitarian and scientific projects such as helping research how proteins fold, to aid in biological discovery or helping pay for misdemeanor prisoners’ bail, or to see if we can better predict the impact of climate change.”

The Salon plan drew a pretty quick and strong response from the security community, with many people questioning the privacy and security implications. The site says that nothing is installed on users’ machines and that the cryptomining process will terminate as soon as users leave Salon.

“Salon is mining digital currencies (for our beta, Monero).  To do that, we are instructing your processor to run calculations.  Think of it like borrowing your calculator for a few minutes to figure out the answer to math problems, then giving it back when you leave the site. We automatically detect your current processing usage and assign a portion of what you are not using to this process. Should you begin a process that requires more of your computer’s resources, we automatically reduce the amount we are using for calculations,” the FAQ says.

Ad blockers have become standard equipment for many people, especially security and privacy conscious folks. Media sites have been fighting a losing war against them for several years now, as they try to prop up the advertising-based content model for a while longer. That war is probably pretty much over, as some of the major browsers soon will have ad blockers built in and many users have figured out ways to circumvent the “please turn off your ad blocker” barriers anyway. As uncomfortable as it is, the cryptomining scheme may well be a glimpse into the near future of the media business. Short of finding an angel like Jeff Bezos, media companies will need to come up with new ways to support their efforts, and this may be it. Who knew that math would end up being useful to English majors after all?

Dennis Fisher

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Dennis Fisher

Dennis Fisher is editor-in-chief at Duo Security. He is an award-winning technology journalist who has specialized in covering information security and privacy for the last 15 years. Prior to joining Duo, he was one of the founding editors of On the Wire, Threatpost and previously covered security for TechTarget and eWeek.