Cryptojacking’s time (and new name) will come soon

So-called "cryptojacking" is sometimes just an attempt to monetize web content. Isn't it time we called it something different?
21 March 2018

Cryptojacking is mining by stealth. Sometimes, not so stealthily | Source: Shutterstock

T here has been a recent spate of news reports focusing on cryptojacking; that is, when a website starts to use the computing power of the viewing device to mine for cryptocurrencies (typically Monero, at present).

Cryptojacking is almost always seen as a detrimental intrusion on our online liberties, with the name neatly segueing the mind from cryptocurrencies (strange currencies used on the dark web by hackers) into hijacking (overtaking the user’s computer without their knowledge nor understanding).

But cryptojacking throws into relief the issue of monetization of the internet, and in fact, cryptojacking may not, in the longer term, seem like such a bad idea. Might we even in time come up with a more positive moniker? “Pay-as-you-view” might be a good starting place.

Since the internet’s commercialization in the 1990s, online publishers have struggled to find ways in which they could make money. Avarice wasn’t necessarily a motive; instead, publishers simply wanted to be paid for their work, in much the same way that old-school hacks on daily newspapers want a salary.

Monetization methods for media have been trialed and tested. Some pass into obscurity, while others just take new forms: one-hit wonder Sigue Sigue Sputnik‘s first (vinyl) album had commercials between tracks, much to the merriment of the music press of the time. But today, users of the free tier of Spotify get an experience which isn’t so very different: commercials between tracks.

The problem with cryptojacking (apart from its name) may be that it’s employed without telling the website user, is poorly implemented, and falls foul of public ignorance of what’s going on in the background content is read or consumed.

Online publishers need to make their mortgage payments, and consumers demand material to consume. How money changes hands for the former to supply the latter varies, and while some methods are deemed acceptable, others indeed aren’t (at present). Monetization methods vary in their intensity, and therefore in their acceptability:

Acceptable commercial practices

  • Placing content behind a paywall
    Pay annually, monthly, on a fixed or sliding scale for access to media. Media can be online only or include additional material, such as paper copies of newspapers plus access to websites, Blu-ray disks arriving in the post as an adjunct to streamed movies.
  • Partial paywalling
    “Read the rest of this article” links, or, “This content is part of our premium content,” messages may be annoying, but at least they’re out in the open: if you want more, you’ll need to pay.
  • Appeals to better nature
    Prefixing or appending materials which ask for donations in a (hopefully) non-intrusive manner seem to be effective, given the right audience. And the option is always there to pay a little, should consumers’ consciences trouble them sufficiently.
  • In-app purchases
    These aren’t necessarily solely the proviso of the app developer: the underlying method can be used elsewhere – pay-to-view streamed content, for instance. If the consumer wants to progress, get more, receive bonuses or in other ways satisfy a need right now, then, for the right price, it can be done.

Grey-area acceptability methods

  • Inline advertising, on-page ads
    The most straightforward method of ad revenue generation, and in internet years, the venerable old fart of internet commerce. How far technology can take the advertiser, however, is where the grey area between acceptable and irritation is “explored” by the “bold” advertiser.Every web browser now has a pop-up blocker. Why? Public demand was leaning on browser devs. Ad-blockers are now appearing in the latest generation of browsing apps, much to the chagrin of the advertising industry. Why? The ad industry went one step too far, and the message being sent out is, therefore, one of “enough is enough, no further.”
  • Sponsored content
    Good content is good content, whatever its motives, with memes which advertise products artfully are positively celebrated. Anything too surreptitiously presented as something which it provable isn’t, tends to fall foul of the internet’s increasingly raw sense of outrage.There will always be those parties which attempt to exploit some consumers’ innate gullibility, but generally speaking, as long as declarations of intent are made clear from the off, the internet audience likes to make its own decisions on whether or not to consume, ignore or reject any commercial overtures.”News stories” highlighted as “partner content” or “sponsored posts” are deemed acceptable given adequate signposting. Lengthy articles extolling product x over alternative y are suspect, especially with phrases like, “Some of the featured companies are chosen partners of…” as addenda.In business, particular pitfalls await the naive. The money trail behind a survey or report which happens to point out a deficiency in business knowledge in area x can usually be traced back to a supplier of solutions to address said deficiency. Getting positioned in a “special quartile” doesn’t come cheap.

Free stuff sucks

It’s eye-opening to grasp that just because something online isn’t commercially motivated, it’s in some way “better” than paid-for material. In some instances, free materials are less trustworthy, just because of that assumption.

Even the internet giants are not immune: false reviews on TripAdvisor, Amazon, Revoo, and Google+ skew results very nicely. Google and Bing tread a fine line between presenting search returns as sponsored or organic, but most choose to click the “free” results as they’re in some way “better”.

Of course, media has traditionally had specific leanings with commercial, political or religious views pushed as hard as the creators wish to. “Free” content is precisely the same, but the difference is now that extra-national influences (ex-KGB operatives hunched over laptops) can, apparently, influence voting behavior by inserting coded messages in among the kitten GIFs.

Instagrammers with millions of followers may well “prefer” a product. The platform may be free, but the messages sometimes are not free from the “taint” of money. Is that worse, or better than a broadcast segment prefixed with, “And now, a message from our sponsor”?

Open (source) Monero mining

The crux of the matter is one of openness on the part of the commercial interest as to the extent of its involvement in the message, and what is expected of its consumer. Buying a newspaper with a known ideological slant is a consumer’s acceptance of an unspoken contract. He or she knows what they’re getting, and the editor (and/or owners) has free rein to supply biased materials.

Cryptojacking, to date at least, fails to be open about the contract between media owner and consumer. Not only have some website owners mis-sold the process’s effects (ramping CPUs to 100 percent, not adding a 30 percent load to a medium-power desktop, for instance), but the consumer’s knowledge of what is involved isn’t easily imparted by glib phrases like‘s: “We intend to use a percentage of your spare processing power to contribute to the advancement of technological discovery, evolution, and innovation.”

For trust to exist, it’s up to the tech world to supply a little education on the process of cryptojacking, and exercise a little restraint for a while, until the message that mining isn’t as bad as the phrase “cryptojacking” suggests.