Benjamin Edelman

People I admire for one reason or another. Maybe they are a malware fighter of notoriety or admirable for another reason. They will all get a thread and I will explain why.

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Benjamin Edelman

Postby JeanInMontana » Tue Jun 12, 2007 9:08 pm

I would have to call anyone even hinting they were in the security community a liar if they didn't know this name. It is the stuff legends are made of. Ben's videos of Zango installs are boggling to watch. I use them to show my A.C.E. classes how this stuff gets on their machines before they can react. It's a big hit. We all owe a great deal to this man. I admire him greatly.

Spyware Still Cheating Merchants and Legitimate Affiliates

Almost three years ago, I explained how software from Zango (then called 180solutions) could rip off affiliate merchants by claiming commission on merchants' ordinary organic traffic. When users simply type in a site's address and make a purchase, merchants shouldn't have to pay an affiliate commission. But Zango's software monitors what web sites users visit, and when it sees users browse a targeted merchant, Zango often pops open an affiliate link to that merchant. If a user then makes a purchase, the merchant pays the affiliate a commission -- even though the affiliate did nothing whatsoever to facilitate or encourage the sale.

Hundreds of different affiliates use Zango and other spyware to claim commissions from scores of merchants. As I show in Spyware Still Cheating Merchants and Legitimate Affiliates, some of the web's largest advertisers continue to be targeted. Three resulting harms: Wasting merchants' money, reducing commissions paid to legitimate affiliates, and helping to support spyware vendors and their partners.


Introducing the Automatic Spyware Tester

Savvy merchants want to protect themselves from spyware improperly claiming affiliate commissions. Hands-on testing is the most natural approach: Get some spyware, see what affiliate links it opens, and remove those affiliates from a merchant's affiliate program. That said, testing can be time-consuming: There are many spyware programs to check and many variations to consider.

Automation offers an appealing alternative. Earlier this year, I wrote a program I call the "Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester" ("AutoTester"). On a set of virtual machines infected with a variety of spyware, the AutoTester browses a set of test scenarios -- viewing web pages, running searches, and even adding items to shopping carts at retailers' sites. The AutoTester keeps a full log of what happens -- a video of what pop-ups appear, and a packet log of what network transmissions occur. If the AutoTester observes any improper traffic (such as an unexpected and unrequested affiliate link), it records that event in a log file, and it tags the video and packet log accordingly.

In Introducing the Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester, I explain more about what AutoTester does, how it works, and what it can catch.


Spyware Inflating Traffic Counts

Want your web site to look more popular than it really is? Spyware offers an easy opportunity: Make users visit your site through involuntary pop-ups. Then the site's traffic and reach statistics will spike dramatically. With cheap spyware-originating traffic, advertisers can boost their traffic at reasonable cost -- fooling advertisers, investors, and the public at large.

In How Spyware-Driven Forced Visits Inflate Web Site Traffic Counts, I show six sites using exactly these tactics -- joining four others the New York Times reported in December. These tactics stretch to the highest levels -- Orbitz's, Conde Nast's, and numerous supposedly-up-and-coming video sites.

Meanwhile, Youtube scammers use similar tactics to make their videos look more popular than they really are. Some scammers use spyware and popups to force users to watch videos they didn't request. One particularly galling sham forced users' computers to give a video a 5 rating -- when users hadn't even watched it. Details.

These incidents emphasize the unreliability of current measurement systems. When a user's computer loads a web site, did a user actually ask to go there? Or did a popup force the "visit"? When a video receives a top rating, is that really because users classified it as such? Or did spyware fake the rating? When a pay-per-click tracking link is invoked, is that really because a user clicked it? Or did a click fraud 'bot fake the click? At present, these measurements are too easy to game, and there's good reason to doubt the statistics many companies provide. In other aspects of commerce, we have robust checks and balances -- circulation bureaus, auditors, rigorous rating methods, even ATM cards with independent PINs. But Internet advertising remains something of a backwater of unaccountability. More on this in a future piece.


Where I'm Headed

A personal note: I'm now an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit. But my research interests remain as before -- particularly catching online fraud, and designing systems and markets to deter and prevent fraud.

As to this occasional email newsletter, let me offer the usual warning: I only send messages to this list a few times per year. (The most recent messages were April and October 2006.) For fastest notice of additions to my site, consider subscribing to my RSS feed. The RSS sign-up link is on the front of my site, and any standard RSS reader will keep you updated automatically.

Questions? Puzzles? Suggestions? Just hit reply. I look forward to hearing from you.

Benjamin Edelman

I wrote to Ben and asked permission to post this.
With your permission I would like to copy and paste the entire contents
(minus headers) to several help forums I help at. I teach an adult ed
course at the local high school and part of my curriculum is your 180
Solutions install video. It is so great to illustrate how "stuff" happens
so fast. Keep up the good work!

That's fine.I'm glad to hear this material is helpful.


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