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Should You Let Salon Hijack Your CPU for Cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency-mining websites that harness the power of your CPU to generate revenue for themselves are generally the province of criminals and other shady operators, but now a mainstream media website is joining in. The difference is that it's telling you first.

Credit: Irk_lig/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Irk_lig/Shutterstock)

Salon, one of the oldest online-only media companies in the U.S., has seen its revenue drop as many of its readers turn on ad blockers. So it's asking some of those readers to instead let the site mine the Monero cryptocurrency using their computers.

"Your computer itself can help support our ability to pay our editors and journalists," the company says in a FAQ on its website. "We’ll start by applying your processing power to mine cryptocurrencies to recoup lost ad revenue when you use an ad blocker."

Coin-mining software isn't an immediate threat to the security of a computer, but it does crank up the CPU, make your computer run hotter, add to your electricity bill, and slow down whatever else you're doing.

We're not going to get into the ethical issues of coin-mining versus ad blocking, because we don't have the answers. But it seems that Salon won't be turning on the mining machine until you actively opt into it, which is possibly the best way to handle such things. (So far, it's only a beta, and not all users will see it.) Many other sites don't give you a choice, or don't tell you it's happening.

If you really want to make sure no coin miners run in your web pages, install and run good antivirus software, which will stop most coin-mining software. Ironically, many ad blockers will stop coin-mining software too, as will JavaScript blockers like NoScript. (The guy who created JavaScript recommends doing so.) In Salon's case, you might instead want to make sure your ad blocker, if you have one, lets the ads come through.

MORE: What Is Bitcoin? Everything You Need to Know

Salon explains that "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."

That's true. In most cases, coin-mining software, whether it's running with the consent of all parties or not, isn't an immediate threat to the security or integrity of a desktop or laptop computer. But it does crank up the CPU, make your computer run hotter, add to your electricity bill, and slow down whatever else you're doing.

Coinhive, the in-browser JavaScript program that many sites use to mine the Monero cryptocurrency, lets its operators set the maximum CPU usage. Usually, it's around 80 percent. A Salon representative told PC Mag that Salon is indeed using Coinhive, but there was no mention of what the CPU usage would be set to be. (Coinhive gets 30 percent of revenue generated.)

We weren't able to get Salon to trigger the pop-up box enabling the coin-mining software on our computers. But Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica did and reported that the Salon site took up about 50 percent of his CPU usage. 

Coin-miners are a riskier proposition on smartphones, which pack a lot of processing power into a very small space with no fans to cool things down. Coin-mining software will make a smartphone run faster, hotter and drain battery life very quickly. We've even seen photos of a battery cover popping off a smartphone that had been infected by coin-mining malware.

For mobile users, Salon is coming out with an app for which you'll have to pay for content. The company would love it if you opted into that as well. Or you could just load the free Salon website in your mobile browser — with ads.