Monthly Archives: May 2016

Adblocking and Counter-Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Race

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If you use an adblocker, you are probably familiar with messages of the kind shown above, asking you to either disable your adblocker, or to consider supporting the host website via a donation or subscription. This is the battle du jour in the ongoing adblocking arms race — and it’s one we explore in our new report Adblocking and Counter-Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Race.

The reasons for the rising popularity of adblockers include improved browsing experience, better privacy, and protection against malvertising. As a result, online advertising revenue is gravely threatened by adblockers, prompting publishers to actively detect adblock users, and subsequently block them or otherwise coerce the user to disable the adblocker — practices we refer to as anti-adblocking. While there has been a degree of sound and fury on the topic, until now we haven’t been able to understand the scale, mechanism and dynamics of anti-adblocking. This is the gap we have started to address, together with researchers from the University of Cambridge, Stony Brook University, University College London, University of California Berkeley, Queen Mary University of London and International Computer Science Institute (Berkeley). We address some of these questions by leveraging a novel approach for identifying third-party services shared across multiple websites to present a first characterization of anti-adblocking across the Alexa Top-5K websites.

We find that at least 6.7% of Alexa Top-5K websites employ anti-adblocking, with the practices finding adoption across a diverse mix of publishers; particularly publishers of “General News”, “Blogs/Wiki”, and “Entertainment” categories. It turns out that these websites owe their anti-adblocking capabilities to 14 unique scripts pulled from 12 unique domains. Unsurprisingly, the most popular domains are those that have skin in the game — Google, Taboola, Outbrain, Ensighten and Pagefair — the latter being a company that specialises in anti-adblocking services. Then there are in-house anti-adblocking solutions that are distributed by a domain to client websites belonging to the same organisation: TripAdvisor distributes an anti-adblocking script to its eight websites with different country code top-level domains, while adult websites (all hosted by MindGeek) turn to DoublePimp. Finally, we visited a sample website for each anti-adblocking script via AdBlock Plus, Ghostery and Privacy Badger, and discovered that half of the 12 anti-adblocking suppliers are counter-blocked by at least one adblocker — suggesting that the arms race has already entered the next level.

It is hard to say how many levels deeper the adblocking arms race might go. While anti-adblocking may provide temporary relief to publishers, it is essentially band-aid solution to mask a deeper issue — the disequilibrium between ads (and, particularly, their behavioural tracking back-end) and information. Any long term solution must address the reasons that brought users to adblockers in the first place. In the meantime, as the arms race continues to escalate, we hope that studies such as ours will bring transparency to this opaque subject, and inform policy that moves us out of the current deadlock.


“Ad-Blocking and Counter Blocking: A Slice of the Arms Races” by Rishab Nithyanand, Sheharbano Khattak, Mobin Javed, Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, Marjan Falahrastegar, Julia E. Powles, Emiliano De Cristofaro, Hamed Haddadi, and Steven J. Murdoch. arXiv:1605.05077v1 [cs.CR], May 2016.

This post also appears on the UCL Information Security group blog, Bentham’s Gaze.

GCHQ helps banks dump fraud losses on customers

We recently reported that the Commissioner of the Met, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said that banks should not refund fraud victims as this would just make people careless with their passwords and antivirus. The banks’ desire to blame fraud victims if they can, to avoid refunding them, is rational enough, but for a police chief to support them was disgraceful. Thirty years ago, a chief constable might have said that rape victims had themselves to blame for wearing nice clothes; if he were to say that nowadays, he’d be sacked. Hogan-Howe’s view of bank fraud is just as uninformed, and just as offensive to victims.

Our spooky friends at Cheltenham have joined the party. The Register reports a story in the Financial Times (behind a paywall) which says GCHQ believes that “companies must do more to try and encourage their customers to improve their cyber security standards. Customers using outdated software – sometimes riddled with vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit – are a weak link in the UK’s cyber defences.” There is no mention of the banks’ own outdated technology, or of GCHQ’s role in keeping consumer software vulnerable.

The elegant scribblers at the Financial Times are under the impression that “At present, banks routinely cover the cost of fraud, regardless of blame.” So they clearly are not regular readers of Light Blue Touchpaper.

The spooks are slightly more cautious; according to the FT, GCHQ “has told the private sector it will not take responsibility for regulatory failings”. I’m sure the banks will heave a big sigh of relief that their cosy relationship with the police, the ombudsman and the FCA will not be disturbed.

We will have to change our security-economics teaching material so we don’t just talk about the case where “Alice guards a system and Bob pays the costs of failure”, but also this new case where “Alice guards a system, and bribes the government to compel Bob to pay the costs of failure.” Now we know how Hogan-Howe is paid off; the banks pay for his Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit. But how are they paying off GCHQ, and what else are they getting as part of the deal?

Exploring the provision of online booter services

A manuscript authored by myself and Richard Clayton has recently been published as an advance access paper in the criminology journal Deviant Behavior.

This research uses criminological theories to study those who operate ‘booter services’: websites that illegally offer denial of service attacks for a fee. We interviewed those operating the sites, and found that booter services provide ‘easy money’ for the young males that run them. The operators claim they provide legitimate services for network testing, despite acknowledging that their services are used to attack other targets. Booter services are advertised through the online communities where the skills are learned and definitions favorable toward offending are shared. Some financial services proactively frustrate the provision of booter services, by closing the accounts used for receiving payments.

For those accessing the paper from universities, you may find the paper here. The ‘accepted manuscript’, which is the final version of the paper before it has been typeset, can be accessed here.

A dubious cyber security conference

I’ve written before about dubious “academic” journals… and today I’m going to discuss a dubious “academic” conference (which is associated with some dubious journals, but it’s the conference that’s my focus today).

Fordham University has been running the “International Conference on Cyber Security” since 2009 and ICCS 2016 (labelled “Sixth” because they skipped 2011 and 2014) will take place in New York in July. This conference has an extremely reputable program committee and is run by Fordham and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (I expect you’ve heard of them … they investigate cybercrime in the USA…).

There’s also another “International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS 2016)” running this year as well … it will take place in Zurich in July and is run by WASET (the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology). The program committee for this one is somewhat less prestigious (I sorry to say that I have not heard of any of them … and to my mind the most reputable looking person is “Wei Yan of Trend Micro” … except he’s currently on his fourth job since he left Trend Micro in 2010, so that makes me wonder how many of the people on the list know that they’re mentioned ?

There’s other reasons for feeling this conference might be a little dubious, not least that this is apparently the “Eighteenth ICCS”. That might lead you to believe that there have been seventeen previous ICCS events … but I did a lot of searches and failed to find any of them !

My searches did turn up the “2nd International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) 2016” which will take place at the Rajasthan Technical University, India — this one looks pretty respectable, with PC members from India and the USA.

So if you fancy going to Cyber Security Conference in 2016 then you are spoilt for choice, but I would not myself recommend travelling to Zurich. A key reason is that you may find that the Dorint Airport-Hotel, where ICCS 2016 is to be held may turn out to be a little crowded… the same hotel is hosting no fewer than 160 other International conferences at exactly the same time: click here for the full list!

Alternatively, if you can’t make it this year, put a note in your diary. The “31st International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS 2029)” is planned to take place in Zurich on July 21–22 2029… Wei Jan is on the PC for that one too … and the submission deadline is as soon as March 31, 2029, so best to get a move on with finishing that paper!

As a final note, invited papers from ICCS 2016 (the Zurich version) are to be published in a special issue of “Advances in Cyber Security”. Now you might cynically think that this was an open access journal from WASEC, but no they have no journal with that title (and in fact neither does anyone else)… but what do you know, “Advances in Cyber Security” is a fine looking book published in December 2012 by none other than Fordham University Press. Small world, isn’t it!