A Closer Look at Coupons.com updated September 24, 2007

I recently examined software from Coupons.com. At first glance their approach seems quite handy. Who could oppose free coupons? But a deeper look reveals troubling behaviors I can’t endorse. This piece summarizes my key concerns:

  • Installing with deceptive filenames and registry entries that hinder users’ efforts to fully remove Coupons’ software. Details.
  • Failing to remove all Coupons.com components upon a user’s specific request. Details.
  • Assigning each user an ID number, and placing this ID onto each printed coupon, without any meaningful disclosure. Details.
  • Allowing third-party web sites to retrieve users’ ID numbers, in violation of Coupons.com’s privacy policy. Details.
  • Allowing any person to check whether a given user has printed a given coupon, in violation of Coupons.com’s privacy policy. Details.

The Coupons.com business

Coupons.com offers users coupons which they can print at home, then redeem at retailers.

Coupons.com specifically promises users that they may "use as many [coupons] as [they] like." But in fact, Coupons.com takes great pains to limit how many coupons users can print. Rather than simply letting users print GIF or JPG coupons from an ordinary web page, Coupons.com requires that users install a coupon-printing ActiveX control. Coupons.com also customizes each coupon with information about who printed it and when. These design decisions increase the complexity of Coupons.com’s business — giving rise to the serious consent and privacy issues set out below.

Installing with deceptive filenames and registry entries

On an ordinary test PC that had never previously run any software from Coupons.com, I installed Coupons.com’s Coupon Bar 5.0 software. I requested a coupon to be printed, then ran an "InCtrl" comparison of changes made to my computer. InCtrl revealed the following new files and registry entries:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Controls Folder\Presentation Style
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Internet Settings\URLDecoding

Each of these entries consisted of a 30 to 90-letter string of gibberish. For example, the contents of uccspecc.sys exactly matched the contents of the first three registry entries: HtmWSrewvuaCGtKrVlXxMKdbMkLfgHq.

Others have also noticed these oddly-named files. For example, McAfee SiteAdvisor reports every file and registry entry Coupons.com creates.

These Coupons.com filenames and registry keys are deceptive, for at least three different reasons.

1) The labels falsely suggest that the components are part of Windows, rather than third-party add-ins. For example, the files and registry keys are placed in locations reserved for Windows itself, not for third-party applications. Furthermore, Coupons.com’s choice of filename and registry keys affirmatively misrepresents the function of the specified components.

2)The labels falsely suggest that the components are system files. For example, the .SYS file extension has a special meaning to Windows (e.g. for device drivers and other system components), but the Coupons.com file serves no such "system" function. Registry keys as to (supposed) Explorer AutoTray, URL encoding, and folder presentation settings all suggest intuitive meanings. But Coupons.com goes on to use these keys for a purpose unrelated to their names.

3) The labels are confusingly similar to genuine Windows components. For example, WindowsShell.Manifest is a bona fide Windows file, but Coupons.com’s "WindowsShellOld.manifest.1" (emphasis added) has no relationship whatsoever with that file (and is certainly not an "old" version of that file). Similarly, the HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Internet Settings\URLEncoding registry key is required by Internet Explorer, making Coupons’ choice of the similar URLDecoding (emphasis added) especially likely to confuse typical users.

Coupons.com’s choice of registry keys and filenames has a clear purpose and effect: To deter users from deleting the specified keys and files. Even among users sophisticated enough to manually delete unwanted files and registry keys, the chosen registry keys and filenames look so official that removal appears unwise. The typical result is that users will elect to retain these files, mistakenly concluding that these files are part of Windows.

Coupons.com’s deceptive filenames flout industry norms. For example, the Anti-Spyware Coalition’s Best Practices invite anti-spyware vendors to consider whether a program’s “files have easy-to-understand names and are easy for users to find on their computers” — a test Coupons.com clearly fails. Anti-spyware statutes in Texas and Arkansas specifically prohibit deceptively-named files and registry entries that prevent users from removing software, and TRUSTe Trusted Download rules (which bind Coupons.com as a Trusted Download sealholder) also prohibit deceptive naming to avoid removal. These Texas, Arkansas, and TRUSTe requirements admittedly limit their prohibitions to deceptively-named "software" and to deception that hinders program removal. Perhaps Coupons.com manages to escape these rules by deceptively naming its configuration files (rather than its executable code) or by making its executable code (though not its configuration files) easy to remove. Nonetheless, these authorities reveal the public’s discomfort with deceptive naming. If users are to know what is on their computers and why, vendors must name their files in a way reasonable users can understand. Yet Coupons.com intentionally does exactly the opposite..

Failing to remove all Coupons.com components when users request uninstall

On my test PC, I attempted to uninstall the Coupons.com software in the usual way: Control Panel – Add/Remove Programs – Coupon Printer. The uninstaller claimed to have run successfully. Yet my computer retained the two files and five registry entries set out in the prior section. These files and registry entries remained even after I restarted my test PC.

I had requested an "uninstall" of Coupons.com software — not a partial uninstall, but (for lack of any instruction or indication to the contrary) a complete uninstall. The Coupons.com uninstaller had even paused to ask about a specific "shared system file" it wanted special confirmation to delete — further suggesting a thorough removal procedure. The uninstaller ultimately reported that the uninstall was "successful." Nonetheless, the specified components were left on my computer after uninstall.

Coupons.com’s privacy policy fails to disclose that these files and registry keys — embodiments of a user’s ID number, as explained in subsequent sections — are left behind even after uninstall. The privacy policy discusses cookies (a more common way to store user information) in a full paragraph, including three sentences about "persistent cookies" and how users can remove them. The privacy policy therefore seems to cover all user information that Coupons.com stores on users’ PCs. Yet the privacy policy is entirely silent as to the files and registry entries set out above, and as to their retention even after a user attempts to remove Coupons.com software. Neither does Coupons.com’s software license agreement mention these hidden files — neither their existence nor their retention.

The TRUSTe Trusted Download certification agreement requires "an easy and intuitive means of uninstallation" (provision 7). TRUSTe instructs that uninstallation "must remove the Certified Software from the User’s computer." TRUSTe does not specifically speak to the possibility of a program leaving data files behind after uninstall. But where TRUSTe offers an exception to the requirement of complete removal, that exception is tightly limited to serving a user’s direct and immediate interest. (Namely, TRUSTe allows a program to leave behind a shared component that other programs also rely on, since removing that component would disable the other programs.) Furthermore, TRUSTe’s requirement summary demands that "[u]ninstallation must remove all software associated with the particular application" (emphasis added) — broad language suggesting little tolerance for files intentionally left behind. Since TRUSTe offers only a single exception to the requirement of complete removal, and since that exception is so narrow, I believe TRUSTe will likely take a dim view of certified software intentionally failing to uninstall any of its components.

Printing users’ ID numbers onto coupons

Coupons.com Prints a User's ID Number on Each Coupon Coupons.com Prints a User’s ID Number on Each Coupon

Every coupon printed from Coupons.com bears a series of small numbers. These numbers include the user ID of the user who printed the coupon. See an example coupon printed from my computer, repeatedly reporting my user ID: 35415364.

Coupons.com’s privacy policy does not prominently warn users that Coupons.com will include their user IDs on each printed coupon. As best I can tell, after multiple careful readings of the privacy policy, the only relevant provision is as follows:

Coupons, Inc. discloses "automatically collected" data (such as coupon print and redeem activity) to its Clients and third-party ad servers and advertisers. These third parties may match this data with information that they have previously collected about you under their own privacy policies, which you should consult on a regular basis.

I believe Coupons.com considers user ID numbers to be "automatically collected data," and Coupons.com seems to use the word "Clients" to include product manufacturers as well as retail merchants. On such an interpretation, the quoted language might let Coupons.com print user ID numbers on coupons that are given to retailers and ultimately to merchants. But even if consumers read the quoted language, most consumers will be unable to figure out what it means because the wording is so convoluted and vague.

In lieu of the quoted wording, Coupons.com could simply explain: "We include your user ID on each coupon you print." Such a warning would be clear, concise, and easy to understand. But such a warning would also raise privacy concerns for typical users — perhaps one reason why Coupons.com might prefer more complicated wording.

Allowing third-party web sites to retrieve user ID numbers, in violation of Coupons.com’s privacy policy

Coupons.com Allows Third-Party Sites to Retrieve User ID Numbers Coupons.com Allows Third-Party Sites to Retrieve User ID Numbers

Examining JavaScript code on Coupons.com’s web site, I noticed an apparent design flaw. Testing confirmed my suspicion: Any web page can invoke the "GetDeviceID" method of Coupons.com’s coupon-printing software. The web page then receives the user ID associated with the user’s installation of Coupons.com software.

To confirm this data leakage, see my Coupons.com Software Shares User IDs with Arbitrary Third Parties testing page. If a computer runs current Coupons.com software, this page will display the associated Coupons.com user ID. (However, no information is sent to my web server or otherwise stored or preserved.) This is the exact same ID number that is printed onto users’ coupons. (Screenshot.)

Although Coupons.com user ID numbers appear to be assigned arbitrarily, distribution of these ID numbers raises at least three privacy concerns:

1) This distribution is not permitted under Coupons.com’s privacy policy. Coupons.com’s privacy policy specifically limits the circumstances in which Coupons.com will share user information, and this is not among the circumstances users accept. In particular, Coupons.com says it will disclose certain information to "clients and third-party ad servers and advertisers." But in fact, Coupons.com’s program code makes user IDs available to anyone — even to sites with absolutely no relationship to Coupons.com.

2) Coupons.com user IDs are widespread. As explained in the prior section, a user’s ID is printed onto each coupon the user prints. Broad distribution of user IDs increases the unpredictable consequences of further sharing of ID numbers. For example, a merchant’s web site could cross-check users’ computers against coupons — conceivably even connecting users’ computers back to users’ retail purchase histories. Retailers could similarly use Coupons.com ID numbers to connect a user’s online activity to the user’s in-store shopping habits.

3) Coupons.com user IDs are persistent. Unless a user carefully removes the filenames and registry entries set out in the preceding section, uninstalling and reinstalling Coupons.com software will retain the same user ID. A Coupons.com user ID is therefore highly likely to continue to identify the same user over time. In contrast, other identifiers tend to change over time. For example, many ISPs reassign user IP addresses often. Some users their cookies in an attempt to increase their online privacy. Because Coupons.com user IDs are unusually hard to remove, Coupons.com user IDs are a particularly effective way for sites to track users over an extended period.

This violation of Coupons.com’s privacy policy occurred despite Coupons.com’s membership in the TRUSTe Web Privacy Seal Program, the TRUSTe Trusted Download Program, and the BBBOnLine Reliability Program. Knowing that Coupons.com software assigns each user an ID number and that Coupons.com accesses these ID numbers through its web site, the prospect of leakage to other web sites (in specific violation of Coupons.com’s privacy policy) was obvious and intuitive. Yet it seems TRUSTe and BBBOnLine failed to check for this possibility. This failure is particularly disappointing since TRUSTe’s Trusted Download program claims to specialize in software testing.

Allowing any person to check whether a given user has printed a given coupon

Coupons.com Confirms that a Given User Has Printed a Given Coupon Coupons.com Confirms that a Given User Has Printed a Given Coupon

Coupons.com Reports that a User Has Not Printed a Given CouponCoupons.com Reports that a User Has Not Printed a Given Coupon

Coupons.com’s Veri-fi service, veri-fi.com, lets any interested person determine whether the coupon is (in Coupons.com’s view) "counterfeit [or] fraudulently-altered." But this same mechanism also lets any person check whether a given Coupons.com user (identified only by the user’s Coupons.com user ID) has printed a given coupon — potentially revealing significant information about the user’s purchasing interests.

To confirm the effect of Coupons.com’s Veri-fi service, I entered the codes from the example coupon shown above. I received the first confirmation shown at right — indicating that the specified user ID (me) had printed the specified coupon.

I then entered the same user ID, but a different coupon code. In particular, I chose a coupon code associated with a valid Coupons.com coupon that I had never printed using the specified user ID. As shown in the second screenshot at right, Veri-fi reported that this second code was invalid. That is, Veri-fi reported that the specified user ID had never printed the specified coupon.

Veri-fi seems to work just as Coupons.com intended. However, combining the Veri-fi verification system with the widespread distribution of Coupons.com user IDs (both in print and through JavaScript), Coupons.com reveals detailed information about which users have requested which coupons. Via the JavaScript interface, a web site can easily extract a user’s Coupons.com user ID. Then, via Veri-fi, the web site can check which coupons the user has printed. The web site can thereby build a rich profile of the user’s purchasing interests — despite the promise in Coupons.com’s privacy policy that such information would be distributed only to Coupons.com’s clients, ad servers, and advertisers.

Strikingly, Coupons.com fails to limit Veri-fi to bona fide coupon validators (e.g. retailers and manufacturers). In fact, Veri-fi lacks even a Terms of Service document or a license agreement to attempt to limit who uses the site.

Update (August 28, 2007 – 3:35pm): Coupons.com has contacted me to report that the Veri-fi site no longer allows the data retrieval described above.

Implications & Consequences

A user visiting Coupons.com reasonably expects to get free coupons. Unfortunately, Coupons.com’s practices far exceed anything described in marketing materials, EULA, or privacy policy. Would users join Coupons.com if they knew they had to receive deceptively-named files? That uninstall would leave files behind for possible use later? That every printout would carry a user ID that could be linked to a user’s full coupon-printing history? That Coupons.com’s software and web site would distribute user information in ways even Coupons.com probably didn’t anticipate? We can’t know the answers to these questions because Coupons.com never gave users the opportunity to decide. But with full disclosure, users might well choose to get their coupons elsewhere.

Coupons.com prominently touts its certifications from TRUSTe (including TRUSTe’s new Trusted Download Program) and BBBOnLine. But when these organizations learn of Coupons.com’s specific practices, I doubt they’ll be impressed. Coupons.com’s practices are in tension with various TRUSTe rules, including a Trusted Download prohibition on certain deceptive filenames and registry keys, as well as TRUSTe’s general prohibition on privacy policy violations. More generally, it’s hard to call a program "trusted" when it uses deceptive names to hide some of its key files, when it fails to remove itself fully upon a user’s specific request, and when it makes available users’ identifying information despite privacy policy promises to the contrary. Retaining the credibility of Trusted Download probably requires that TRUSTe take action either to correct Coupons.com’s practices or to sever TRUSTe’s ties to Coupons.com.

Coupons.com could easily fix some of these bad practices. A new version of Coupons.com’s software could prevent arbitrary web sites from retrieving user ID numbers. Coupons.com could stop printing users’ ID numbers on each coupon, or could prominently tell users that each coupon bears a user ID. Coupons.com could limit Veri-fi access to retailers and manufacturers.

With effort, Coupons.com could track users’ coupon-printing without underhanded tactics like deceptive files and registry entries. For one, Coupons.com could label its files and registry keys appropriately — treating its users with dignity and respect, rather than assuming users will try to cheat. Alternatively, Coupons.com could use recognize computers on which it has previously been installed, without resorting to deceptive files or registry entries. (Direct Revenue built such a system — checking a user’s ethernet address, Windows product key, etc. in order to identify repeat installations.) Simpler yet, Coupons.com could request users’ email addresses, and use duplicate addresses to recognize repeat users. Coupons.com may worry that email addresses offer inadequate security, but eBay (Paypal), Google, and others have used this method even for larger offers (as large as $5 – $10).

Coupons.com’s practices fit the historical problems with digital rights management (DRM) software that attempts to constrain what users can do with their own computers. Compare Coupons.com’s approach to the notorious Sony CDs which used a rootkit to conceal Sony’s DRM software. Just as Sony had to rely on a rootkit to hide its DRM software from users who otherwise would have chosen to remove it, Coupons.com hides user IDs in obscure files and registry keys. Just as Sony’s disclosures were less than forthright, so too does Coupons.com fail to tell users what it is doing and how. Based on their examination of software to constrain access to digital music, Ed Felten and Alex Halderman previously explained the core problem: So long as users don’t want a given piece of code on their computers, vendors are forced to conceal their efforts to put it there and to keep it there. As to Coupons.com, some users do want the core functionality. But tracking users after uninstall is sufficiently noxious that Coupons.com knows it must cover its tracks lest users notice. Coupons.com thus finds itself in the same DRM predicament that ensnared Sony.

FullContext Spyware Injects Coupons.com Ads Into Google FullContext Spyware Injects Coupons.com Ads Into Google

Coupons.com is currently suing John Stottlemire, who Coupons.com claims told users "how to beat the limitation imposed by the software provided by coupons.com." (Complaint paragraph 20.) Coupons.com alleges that Stottlemire "created and used software that purported to remove Plaintiff’s security features, for the purpose of printing more coupons than [Coupons.com’s] security features allow." (Paragraph 21) Coupons.com claims that Stottlemire’s practices violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, among other causes of action. I can’t speak to the merits of Coupons.com’s claim. But perhaps Coupons.com would do better to focus on protecting users’ privacy and on complying with its privacy policy.

Coupons.com’s behaviors are particularly notable because they extend to multiple coupon-printing programs distributed by literally thousands of web sites. Although I primarily tested Coupons.com’s Coupon Bar software (version 5.0), it seems Coupons.com’s Coupon Printer 4.1 shares all relevant characteristics. (These are the two Coupons.com programs that have been certified by TRUSTe’s Trusted Download.) In addition to distribution at the Coupons.com web site, these programs are also offered by numerous partner sites. Coupons.com’s marketing materials claim more than 1500 such sites, including the LA Times, Washington Times, and Philly.com.

Coupons.com’s online advertising strategy raises trust and privacy questions similar to those presented by Coupons.com’s coupon-printing software. Twice this year I’ve seen and recorded Coupons.com ads shown through spyware: First through the FullContext ad injector (which put Coupons.com ads into the top of Google.com, above Google’s logo), and later through Targetsaver full-screen pop-up ads. Screenshots. Both programs are widespread and known for installing without consent, among other anti-consumer practices. To be a respected player in the online advertising economy, Coupons.com must do more to avoid funding these spyware vendors and the unsavory ecosystem they represent.

Update on Coupons.com’s Response, My Critique, and TRUSTe’s Decision (September 23, 2007)

After I posted the article above, Coupons.com circulated a two-page response. Among other claims, the response argues that the specified registry keys and filenames are "not deceptive." I emphatically disagree. The components are intentionally named to look like they’re part of Windows, and they’re placed in locations where Windows components ordinarily appear. These practices are exactly intended to mislead users as to the components’ purpose. That’s the essence of deception.

Coupons further claims the "user ID" I describe is in fact a "device ID." As a threshhold matter, that would change none of my analysis. But the word "user" comes directly from Coupons.com’s own source code. Coupons’ JavaScript code references a function called "GetUserCode()" (emphasis added) and passes a OBJECT PARAM tag with value USERID (emphasis added). Elsewhere, Coupons.com uses the abbreviation "txtUID" — i.e. a text field storing a user ID. With these repeated "user" references appearing in code written by Coupons.com, Coupons.com cannot credibly claim I err in my use of that same term.

Coupons.com goes on to argue it ought not be responsible for third parties using Coupons.com’s software to obtain user IDs. Coupons says "it is hard to imagine how a third party’s unauthorized use of our software — a sort of trespass … — constitutes our violation of our own privacy policy." I disagree. Perhaps Coupons.com should begin by rereading its privacy policy. Within the heading "our commitment to data security," Coupons.com specifically promises to "use[] commercially reasonable physical, managerial, and technical safeguards to preserve the integrity and security of your personal information." Coupons.com cannot in good conscience claim it is a "commercially reasonable" "technical safeguard" to allow any web site to invoke a simple JavaScript method of Coupons.com’s software. Quite the contrary, this is poor design — falling far short of industry norms for data protection.

Meanwhile, Coupons.com has updated its installer to show a new license agreement. If a user scrolls to the second screen of the license agreement, the user is told of "License Keys" to be placed on the user’s computer. To Coupons.com’s credit, the installer now discloses that these files will not be removed upon uninstall. But the files continue to be placed in deceptive locations in the user’s Windows directory and in the dedicated Windows section of the user’s registry — a fact nowhere disclosed to users.

On August 31, I filed a watchdog complaint with TRUSTe as to the Coupons.com practices set out above. In response, TRUSTe told me it will require Coupons.com to change its naming system "to avoid looking like … other popular software" (i.e. Windows). TRUSTe will also require Coupons.com to offer a new version of its software that removes deceptive files and registry entries leftover from prior versions. (TRUSTe’s blog describes these same requirements, albeit in terms less stark than the email TRUSTe sent me.) These are certainly steps in the right direction. Were the decision mine to make, I doubt I’d keep Coupons.com on the Trusted Download whitelist during a period when the company’s practices are known to fall short. But that’s a topic for another day.

Meanwhile, Coupons.com continues litigation against John Stottlemire. I’ve been in touch with John. I’ve learned that his software — which would have removed Coupons.com’s deceptive files and registry entries upon a user’s specific request — was actually never distributed to anyone but Coupons.com. (John’s web server detected Coupons.com’s IP addresses and granted them access, even before John was prepared to make the software available to anyone else.) This fact leaves me all the more doubtful of Coupons.com’s litigation strategy. John’s software was never used by even a single user. And John’s software would have done nothing more than remove the deceptively-named components TRUSTe is now ordering Coupons.com to remove itself. I remain hopeful that Coupons.com will withdraw this ill-fated attempt to silence a critic. Pending that, I’ve added John’s plight to my spyware threats page.

Finally, Coupons.com’s sneaky tactics continue to undermine its standing in the security community. Some top anti-spyware programs now detect Coupons.com — and rightly so, in my view. Users with Coupons.com software deserve extra information — not forthcoming from Coupons.com — about what the software does and why users might not want it.

Zango’s Compliance Problems

Last November, Zango and the FTC announced a settlement of the FTC’s investigation of Zango’s practices. Among the key requirements: Zango agreed to install only after "clearly and prominently disclos[ing] the material terms [of its software] prior to the display of, and separate from, any [EULA]." Zango further agreed to label each of its ads with a “clear[] and prominent[]” marking as to the source of the ad, as well as a hyperlink to removal and complaint procedures.

Some of Zango’s installations do some of what the settlement requires. But others don’t. Today I’m posting a critique. In a series of screenshots, I show widespread Zango installations with no disclosure outside of a EULA. I also present numerous Zango ads appearing with no labeling at all. Details:

Zango Practices Violating Zango’s Recent Settlement with the FTC

ComScore Doesn’t Always Get Consent updated July 26, 2007

This past Wednesday, ComScore raised $82 million in an IPO that jumped 42% in its first day of trading. Some investors clearly like ComScore’s business, but I wonder whether they fully understand ComScore’s business model, privacy implications, and poor track record of nonconsensual installations.

ComScore’s tracking software is remarkably invasive. The privacy policy for ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge tracking program purports to grant ComScore the right to track users’ name and address, browsing, shopping, and even "online accounts … includ[ing] personal financial [and] health information." Based on these privacy concerns, well-respected security researchers have long warned about ComScore’s software. For example, in 2004 Cornell University began blocking all communications with ComScore’s MarketScore tracking servers. Multiple other universities (including Columbia University and Indiana University) followed up with special warnings to their users.

At least as serious are ComScore’s installation practices. ComScore pays independent distributors to install ComScore software onto users’ computers. Predictably, some of these distributors install ComScore software without getting user consent. Some specific examples:

  • On Wednesday (June 27, 2007), I browsed ExitExchange, a well-known banner farm widely loaded in popups and popunders by various sites (as well as some spyware programs). ExitExchange showed several ads, one of which performed a security exploit that installed ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge. See video proof. Notice the exploit beginning at 0:12. When I ran a HijackThis scan to check for infections (0:29), I found RelevantKnowledge’s "rk.exe" already running (1:10), even though I had not granted permission for it to install.

    Packet log analysis indicates that the installation was performed by Topinstalls and by Searchclickads. The installation was predicated on two simultaneous attempted exploits — one using a Java vulnerability, another using a Microsoft MSXML vulnerability. Also installed (all without my consent): Deskwizz/Searchingbooth, Look2me, and WebBuying, among others not yet identified.

  • I previously observed and recorded a substantially similar nonconsensual installation of RelevantKnowledge (by these same distributors) on April 26, 2007.
  • Spyware researchers at Sunbelt Software observed a nonconsensual installation of RelevantKnowledge, seemingly by these same distributors, earlier in June 2007. Sunbelt staff browsed FirstStolz and received an exploit that installed TopInstalls and Searchclickads, which in turn installed RelevantKnowledge.
  • In August-September 2006, I repeatedly observed RelevantKnowledge installed by DollarRevenue, a notorious spyware bundler (subsequently shut down by Dutch law enforcement). In my testing, DollarRevenue installed RelevantKnowledge software without users’ consent.

    ComScore staff later admitted they had "engaged in partnership negotiations with DollarRevenue." ComScore claims it never paid DollarRevenue — but I personally observed and recorded DollarRevenue installing ComScore software onto my testing systems.

  • In November 2005, I observed ComScore’s MarketScore software installed by PacerD, a notorious spyware bundler that installed through widespread exploits syndicated through ad networks. PacerD installed RelevantKnowledge without user consent.
  • In April 2007, I observed ComScore’s MarketScore software installed when users request and install a media converter program. The inclusion of MarketScore was disclosed only if users scrolled to page four of a box simply labeled "License Agreement." No on-screen label indicated that multiple documents were concatenated into that single scroll box, nor did any short notice or other prominent text make any mention of RelevantKnowledge’s presence or effects. These omissions stand in stark contrast to recent FTC precedent requiring "clear and prominent disclosure of material terms prior to and separate from any end user license agreement."

ComScore’s nonconsensual installations are particularly notable because TRUSTe’s Trusted Download program recently granted a certification (albeit "provisional") to ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge software. I’ve previously criticized other TRUSTe certifications — concerned that TRUSTe-certified sites may be no safer than other sites, and arguably less safe. That said, to TRUSTe’s credit, Integrated Search Technologies’ Vomba is no longer on TRUSTe’s Trusted Download list — albeit a result that TRUSTe attributes to Vomba’s financial concerns rather than to security researcherscritique of Vomba’s practices and lineage. Whatever the reasons for IST’s removal, perhaps ComScore’s MarketScorecould stand for an equally thorough review.

ComScore also boasts a "WebTrust" seal from Ernst & Young. See the associated Audit Report. Ernst & Young indicates that it "test[ed] and evaluat[ed] the operating effectiveness" of ComSCore’s internal controls but concedes that "error or fraud may occur and not be detected."

Update – TRUSTe’s Response (July 26, 2007)

On Friday July 20 — well after the close of the East Coast business day, and fully three weeks after I first reported the nonconsensual installs described above — TRUSTe announced that ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge has been removed from the Trusted Download whitelist for three months.

I have mixed views about this outcome. On one hand, it’s certainly an improvement from prior TRUSTe practice, during which companies as notorious as Direct Revenue were allowed to continue to hold TRUSTe privacy seals despite widespread nonconsensual installations. But a comment from Sunbelt Software’s Eric Howes offers compelling concerns. Eric explains:

[TRUSTe has] essentially decided to continue working with ComScore, provided ComScore spends a token amount of time in the “naughty corner.” … Who loses as a result? Consumers and web surfers ultimately, as ComScore will be allowed to continue plying its trade of surreptitious, underhanded installs of its RelevantKnowledge software to support some very aggressive and intrusive data collection on unsuspecting users’ machines, all with PR cover from TRUSTe.

Eric also cites a June 27 exchange between Sunbelt CEO Alex Eckleberry and TRUSTe’s Colin O’Malley. Transcribing from the audio recording of the Anti-Spyware Coalition‘s public workshop :

Alex Eckelberry: “So what if you have an application that is installing through an exploit? Do those guys go through a probationary process, or do they just get cut off? Are they just gone?”

Colin O’Malley: “If they’re installing through an exploit, that’s covered in what’s described in what we describe as our prohibited activities. That’s not an activity that is acceptable by any level of notice, and so they’re terminated immediately.”

Alex Eckelberry: “Good. OK.”

Remarkably, TRUSTe’s spokesperson now claims Colin promised termination only when a vendor itself uses exploits, but not when its distributors do so. Reports Vnunet: "’Colin [O’Malley]’s remarks were specifically about a company that is directly responsible,’ the spokesperson explained. ‘In this case, it was the affiliate that was exploiting the flaw.'”

I’ve read and reread the exchange, and listened repeatedly for good measure. On my interpretation, Colin plainly promised to terminate any vendor whose software is becoming installed through exploits — no matter whether the vendor itself performs the exploit, or whether the exploit is performed by one of the vendor’s distributors. I reach this conclusion for two separate reasons:

1) The plain language of Alex’s question is intentionally inclusive as to who is doing the installation. Notice the broad "that is installing" — vague as to how exactly the installation is occurring.

2) Distributor-perpetrated exploit installs have been standard practice in the "adware" industrry. That’s what I widely observed as to 180solutions, Direct Revenue, eXact Advertising, and so many others. Meanwhile, vendor-perpetrated exploit installs are few and far between — common only among little-known companies, and even then usually comingled with installing third parties’ software. So if Colin had wanted to remark only on the (unusual or unprecedented) vendor-perpetrated exploits, he would have needed to say that specifically.

Perhaps TRUSTe regrets the breadth of Colin’s promise. But Colin made a tough commitment for good reason: As Colin spoke to dozens of anti-spyware researchers already suspicious of Trusted Download, his big promises helped bolster TRUSTe’s credibility. Had Colin told the ASC what now seems to be TRUSTe’s policy — that some exploit-based installs yield only a temporary suspension — I gather Alex would have questioned Colin further to emphasize the need for a tougher response. Other meeting attendees would probably have done the same.

In any event, if Colin’s goal was to build support among anti-spyware researchers, his efforts don’t seem to be succeeding. Eric continues:

Th[is] case was significant in that it was the first big public test of how well TRUSTe would perform when called to defend the standards that allegedly undergird the Trusted Download program. When push came to shove, though, TRUSTe demonstrated itself to be lacking the backbone to deliver on its word. [This is] another illustration of why we at Sunbelt place no value whatsoever in TRUSTe’s whitelisting and certifications.

Added FaceTime’s Chris Boyd:

For Gods sake, when are we going to stop gimping around and actually break out some actual punishments for people? Either kick someone from your program and be done with it, or … just give up already.

TRUSTe’s extreme delay further compromises the standing of Trusted Download: Three weeks elapsed before TRUSTe responded to my documentation and proof of nonconsensual ComScore RelevantKnowledge installations. Throughout that period, the Trusted Download whitelist continued to list RelevantKnowledge — falsely suggesting that RelevantKnowledge was in good standing. Internet users deserve better: When TRUSTe learns of an infraction of such seriousness, all applicable web pages ought to be updated promptly, lest the Internet community mistakenly proceed in reliance on TRUSTe’s supposed diligence.

Introducing the Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester

I’ve repeatedly shown how spyware programs claim commissions from affiliate merchants. If spyware programs and their affiliates truthfully labeled the resulting traffic as coming from spyware, networks and merchants could reject that traffic — avoiding showing merchants’ sites in unwanted pop-ups, and refusing to pay commissions on any sales that result. But in practice, spyware affiliates’ traffic is not labeled as such, and is therefore hard to separate from legitimate affiliates. With hundreds of different affiliates reselling spyware-originating traffic, even the most determined merchants face difficulty in finding all their bad affiliates.

In How Affiliate Programs Fund Spyware (September 2005), I offered one way merchants and networks can uncover spyware-using affiliates: Hands-on testing. Infect a set of computers (or virtual machines) with spyware, browse the web, and track what happens. If an affiliate is found buying spyware traffic, then punish that affiliate by refusing to pay it commissions it purportedly "earned," or even by demanding repayment of prior-period commissions.

For more than three years, I’ve run extensive hands-on tests of spyware programs, in large part to observe and record what ads were shown. But as I take on new obligations, hands-on testing becomes infeasible.

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 — including 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.

The AutoTester has already proven helpful for finding bad affiliates (like the six affiliates I present in today’s Spyware Still Cheating Merchants and Legitimate Affiliates, among dozens of others). But the AutoTester can equally well detect other kinds of advertising fraud. I’ve recently used the AutoTester to record widespread click fraud against "second-tier" PPC vendors, and to monitor the sequences of redirects behind syndicated display advertising. The AutoTester can even test for cookie-stuffing. So it’s a handy addition to my toolkit and an efficient way to reduce time-consuming hands-on tests. Look for more automatically-generated reports in the future.

US patent pending.

Spyware Still Cheating Merchants and Legitimate Affiliates updated May 22, 2007

Spyware vendors are trying to clean up their images. For example, Zango settled a FTC investigation, then last week sued PC Tools for detecting and removing Zango software. Meanwhile, Integrated Search Technologies (makers of a variety of software previously widely installed without consent) introduced a new "Vomba" client that even received "provisional" TRUSTe Trusted Download certification.

But these programs’ core designs are unchanged: They still track user behavior, still send browsing to their central servers, and still show pop-up ads — behaviors users rightly disfavor due to serious effects on privacy and productivity.

Putting aside users’ well-known dislike for pop-ups, these programs also continue to interfere with standard online advertising systems. In particular, these programs show ads that overcharge affiliate merchants — especially by claiming commission on organic traffic merchants would have received anyway. This article presents six specific examples, followed by analysis and strategies for enforcement.

The Self-Targeting Scam and an Initial Example: Zango, Roundads, and Performics Claiming Commissions on Blockbuster’s Organic Traffic

Putting spyware vendors’ practices in the best possible light, they perform a comparative advertising function — offering a competitor when a user browses a merchant’s site. But suppose a spyware vendor instead shows a "competitor" that is actually just a commission-earning link to the very site the user had specifically requested. Then, if the user buys from that merchant (through either the original window or the new pop-up, in general), the merchant has to pay a commission to the spyware vendor (or its advertiser or affiliate).

Zango, Roundads, Performics Targeting Blockbuster Zango, Roundads, Performics Targeting Blockbuster

For concreteness, consider the events shown in the screenshot at right and in video. On May 13, my automated testing system browsed Blockbuster. Observing the requested traffic to Blockbuster, Zango opened a popup sending traffic to Roundads.com. Roundads redirected to Performics and then back to Blockbuster. To a typical user, this pop-up is easy to ignore — just a second copy of the Blockbuster site, which users had requested in the first place. But the pop-up has serious cost implications for Blockbuster: If the user signs up with Blockbuster, through either window, then Blockbuster concludes it should pay a $18 commission to Roundads via Performics. That’s a sham: Were it not for Zango’s intervention, Blockbuster could have kept the entirety of the user’s subscription fee, without paying any commission at all.

Zango’s activity here doesn’t even meet the definition of advertising ("attracting public attention to a product or business"). After all, the user was already at Blockbuster — and hence can’t be said to have been "attract[ed]" to that site by Zango’s action.

Unless Blockbuster installs Zango’s software and runs its own tests, Blockbuster is likely to conclude (mistakenly) that Roundads has provided a bona fide lead to a new customer. Indeed, since Blockbuster’s preexisting web site visitors are likely to "convert" to buyers at a high rate (compared to visitors who only arrive thanks to advertising), Blockbuster’s advertising metrics (and Performics’ tracking measurements) are likely to consider Roundads an unusually high-quality affiliate thanks to Roundads’ likely high conversion rate. Blockbuster might even pay Roundads a bonus — when in fact this Roundads traffic is worthless.

URL log of the traffic at issue:


For more on these self-targeting pop-ups, targeting merchants’ sites with their own affiliate links, see my earlier The Effect of 180solutions on Affiliate Commissions and Merchants (2004).

On these facts, Blockbuster might reasonably blame Roundads — the entity that purchased the traffic from Zango and put in motion the self-targeting scheme. Investigating Roundads’ identity, Blockbuster will notice Roundads.com’s footer — which states that Roundads is one and the same as Thermo Media / Affiliate Fuel, which credit reporting agency Experian acquired in April 2005. (Update, May 22: Joey Flores, Director of Operations for Affiliate Fuel, wrote to me to report that Roundads has no affiliation with Affiliate Fuel, Thermo Media, or Experian. Joey suggests that Roundads "’borrowed’ from [Thermo Media’s] site design … and their designers got a little copy happy, including [copying] our copyright information on[to] their site.")

Blockbuster might also blame Performics. Performics specifically touts its affiliate network as offering "cost-effective" advertising. But in this example, the cost was a total waste, yielding no benefit whatsoever. Performics further promises "quality affiliates" — an important benefit to merchants who might not otherwise know which affiliates to accept. But in this instance, by all indications Performics failed to protect Blockbuster from Roundads’ bad actions and improper charges.

Finally, Blockbuster might blame Zango — whose pop-up generating software made it remarkably easy for Roundads to target Blockbuster’s organic traffic.

Example 2: Vomba, Ccg360, Lynxtrack (Hydra Network), Adrevolver (Blue Lithium) Claiming Commissions on Blockbuster’s Organic Traffic

Vomba, Ccg360, Lynxtrack (Hydra), Adrevolver (BlueLithium) Overcharging Blockbuster Vomba, Ccg360, Lynxtrack (Hydra), Adrevolver (BlueLithium)

Blockbuster’s online advertising is widespread, and the preceding example is but one of many schemes that charge Blockbuster commission it ought not have to pay. This section shows another.

In the screenshot shown at right, reflecting testing of May 11, my automated testing system requested the Blockbuster site. Vomba spyware observed that I was at Blockbuster, and sent traffic to Ccg360 (purportedly Nelson Cheung of Markham, Canada). Ccg360 redirected to Lynxtrack.com (Hydra Network of Beverly Hills, California), which redirected to Adrevolver (BlueLithium of San Jose, California) and finally back to Blockbuster.

As in the prior example, the net effect was to claim commission on Blockbuster’s organic traffic. If the user signs up with Blockbuster, Blockbuster will pay a commission to the sequence of companies that forwarded the Vomba-originating traffic. But had those parties not intervened with that pop-up, Blockbuster would still have closed the sale — without incurring a commission expense. So as in the prior example, this is self-targeting, charging Blockbuster a commission without providing any bona fide value in return.

URL log of the traffic at issue:


Example 3: Vomba and LinkShare Claiming Commissions on Netflix’s Organic Traffic

Vomba and LinkShare Claiming Commission on Netflix's Organic Traffic Vomba, LinkShare Claiming Commission on Organic Traffic

Netflix has repeatedly promised to sever ties with spyware vendors, even claiming that incidents that I and others observed were "unique and random." But through its LinkShare affiliate program, Netflix continues to get ripped off by spyware — needlessly paying commissions to receive the same kind of traffic Netflix long since promised to reject. This section and the three that follow shows four separate examples of such traffic.

In testing of April 11, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Vomba to LinkShare, then back to Netflix. URL log:


Example 4: Look2me, MyGeek (AdOn Network), Tcshoppingdeals, Apluswebdeals, and LinkShare

Look2me, MyGeek (AdOn Network), Tcshoppingdeals, Apluswebdeals, LinkShare Claiming Commissions on Netflix's Organic Traffic Look2me, MyGeek (AdOn Network), Tcshoppingdeals, Apluswebdeals, LinkShare Overcharging Netflix

In testing of April 25, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Look2me (from Minnesota-based NicTech Networks) (widely installed without consent) to MyGeek (AdOn Network of Phoenix, Arizona) to Tcshoppingdeals (purportedly of Buffalo, New York) to Apluswebdeals (location unknown) to LinkShare, then back to Netflix. See screenshot at right and video. URL log:


Example 5: Web Nexus, Mediatraffic, Ccg360, and LinkShare

Web Nexus, Mediatraffic, Ccg360, LinkShare Claiming Commissions on Netflix's Organic Traffic Web Nexus, Mediatraffic, Ccg360, LinkShare – Netflix

In testing of May 12, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Web Nexus (widely installed without consent) to Mediatraffic (one-and-the-same as Integrated Search Technologies and Vomba) to Ccg360 (purportedly Nelson Cheung of Markham, Canada) to LinkShare, and back to Netflix. See screenshot at right. URL log:


Example 6: Zango, Roundads, and LinkShare

Zango, Roundads, LinkShare Claiming Commission on Netflix's Organic Traffic Zango, Roundads, LinkShare – Netflix

In testing of May 20, my automated testing system browsed Netflix. AutoTester found traffic flowing from Zango to Roundads to LinkShare and back to Netflix. See screenshot, video, and URL log:


In each of these four Netflix examples, spyware sent traffic to LinkShare and then onwards to Netflix — all predicated on users first requesting Netflix directly. So as in the two Blockbuster examples, the spyware provides no bona fide advertising benefit. Instead, the spyware vendors simply claim payments from Netflix without providing any service in return — a glaring reason why Netflix should refuse to pay them. Aside from reducing wasteful advertising spending, Netflix might also want to sever these relationships because the underlying spyware imposes serious costs on consumers: Sneaking onto users’ computers, reducing performance, and diminishing both reliability and privacy.

Netflix might reasonably blame LinkShare for the actions of these affiliates. LinkShare specifically touts its "high quality network" with "better affiliates," whereas these affiliates are the very opposite of high quality. Furthermore, LinkShare prominently claims its service is "cost-efficient" — even as these examples entail Netflix paying for traffic it could have received for free.

Additional Examples on File

The preceding five examples are only a portion of my recent records of spyware advertising fraud and of other spyware advertising. My AutoTester collects dozens of examples per day, and I’ve documented literally hundreds of rogue affiliates during the past year — including dozens of affiliates through each of Commission Junction, LinkShare, and Performics, as well as various affiliates using smaller networks. Any affiliate merchant without a specific plan for detecting and blocking spyware-originating traffic is virtually certain to be receiving — and paying for — this bogus self-targeting spyware-originating traffic.

Winners and Losers

The clearest effect of self-targeting pop-ups is to overcharge merchants. Self-targeting pop-ups ask merchants to pay affiliate commissions on their organic traffic — traffic they should receive for free, thanks to advertising in other media, word of mouth, and repeat buyers. But if merchants fail to take action to protect themselves, they needlessly pay commissions on this organic traffic. Merchants then also pay affiliate network fees and, often, affiliate manager fees too — making the waste that much larger.

Secondarily, self-targeting pop-ups skim commissions from other affiliates. Consider a bona fide rule-following affiliate sending traffic to a targeted merchant. If a spyware self-targeting pop-up intercedes to drop its own affiliate cookies, it overwrites the cookies of the initial affiliate. Affiliate merchants pay commissions on a "last cookie wins" basis — so the first affiliate gets nothing, even though its link truly sent the user to the merchant’s site and actually put the sale in motion. (Examples: 1, 2, 3, 4)

But self-targeting does have beneficiaries. The clearest beneficiaries are the spyware vendors that show self-targeting pop-ups — whether showing these ads directly (with the spyware vendor acting as an affiliate) or indirectly (with some affiliate buying spyware traffic and sending it onwards to a network and a merchant). The resulting revenues fund spyware vendors’ infections, installations, and other expenses.

At least in the short run, self-targeting also benefits affiliate networks. Affiliate networks typically charge merchants a percentage of each commissionable sale. So the more commissions a merchant pays out, the higher the revenues of the merchant’s network. Self-targeting pop-ups convert non-commissionable organic traffic into supposedly-commissionable supposedly-affiliate-originating traffic — expanding networks’ fee base. In the long run, self-targeting fraud could reduce merchants’ interest in affiliate marketing, but in the short run it provides networks with additional revenue. This conflict surely explains at least a portion of networks’ failure to effectively eliminate self-targeting spyware. (Further discussion.)

Nonetheless, I’ve long thought that self-targeting and other spyware traffic present a substantial opportunity for networks seeking to offer increased value to sophisticated merchants. A savvy network could stand behind the quality of its affiliates, exercising real diligence in catching fraud and in protecting merchants from the risk of wasteful, unnecessary payments. Networks can implement protections more efficiently and at lower cost than merchants, because networks can kick out affiliates across their entire network, rather than merely from a single a single merchant’s program. That said, to date the largest three affiliate networks all still receive substantial spyware-originating traffic, including self-targeting traffic.

Revenue Counterfactual

The self-targeting profit opportunity ultimately arises out of mismeasurement of merchants’ own traffic. Networks’ tracking systems encourage merchants to consider the counterfactual labeled #1 in the diagram at right — comparing the sales they made (point C in the diagram) against the supposed counterfactual of not paying commissions and hence not receiving the specified sales (point A). That’s the right comparison for many kinds of advertising, but in these self-targeting examples, it’s entirely misguided. Here, the only appropriate comparison is #2 — comparing the sale that was made with payment of the specified commission (C), versus the very same sale without any commission (B). The difference is stark: In #1, the merchant is pleased to have made a sale at a reasonable marketing expense. But in #2, the true state of affairs, the merchant is paying out commissions without any business benefit whatsoever.

Responses & Next Steps

In Netflix’s 2007 Q1 earnings call, CFO Barry McCarthy noted that Netflix’s recent "word-of-mouth subscriber growth was weak." There are multiple plausible explanations for that change, but advertising fraud is an important additional factor to consider: In the examples set out above, Netflix would mistakenly pay Look2me, Vomba, Web Nexus, and Zango even if a consumer in fact signed up thanks to a word-of-mouth recommendation rather than as a result of those vendors’ advertising. With marketing costs already consuming more than 23% of Netflix’s revenues, any reduction seems both overdue and welcome.

What will Netflix, Blockbuster, and other affiliate merchants do in response to these examples? One immediate action item is to sever their ties with the specific affiliates I have identified. Merchants could also demand repayment of any commissions previously paid out — a challenging task with small affiliates, but probably possible for some larger affiliates.

More generally, merchants must decide how to protect themselves from the many cheating affiliates not reported here. As usual (1, 2), I think the answer is auditing and enforcement. Merchants can run tests themselves, hire a consulting service (like AffiliateFairPlay), or build an automating testing system to find violations. But ignoring these scams is unpalatable because inaction means wasting merchants’ advertising budgets, penalizing rule-following affiliates, and helping support spyware vendors.

How Spyware-Driven Forced Visits Inflate Web Site Traffic Counts

The usual motive for buying spyware popup traffic is simple: Showing ads. Cover Netflix’s site with an ad for Blockbuster, and users may buy from Blockbuster instead. Same for other spyware advertisers.

But there are other plausible reasons to buy spyware traffic. In particular, cheap spyware traffic can be used to inflate a site’s traffic statistics. Buying widespread "forced visits" causes widely-used traffic measurements to overreport a site’s popularity: Traffic measurements mistakenly assume users arrived at the site because they actually wanted to go there, without considering the possibility that the visit was involuntary. Nonetheless, from the site’s perspective, forced visits offer real benefits: Investors will be willing to pay more to buy a site that seems to be more popular, and advertisers may be willing to pay more for their ads to appear. In some sectors, higher reported traffic may create a buzz of supposed popularity — helping to recruit bona fide users in the future.

Yet spyware-originating forced-visit traffic can cause serious harm. Harm may accrue to advertisers — by overcharging them as well as by placing their ads in spyware they seek to avoid. Harm may accrue to investors, by causing them to overpay for sites whose true popularity is less than traffic statistics indicate. In any event, harm accrues to consumers and to the public at large, through funding of spyware that sneaks onto users’ PCs with negative effects on privacy, reliability, and performance.

Others have previously investigated some of these problems. In December 2006, the New York Times reported that Nielsen/NetRatings cut traffic counts for Entrepreneur.com by 65% after uncovering widespread forced site visits. But forced-visit traffic is more widespread than the four specific examples the Times presented.

This article offers six further examples of sites receiving forced visits — including the spyware vendors and ad networks that are involved. The article concludes by analyzing implications — suggested policy responses for advertisers and ad networks, as well as ways of detecting sites receiving forced visits.

Example 1: IE Plugin and Paypopup Promoting Bolt.com

IE Plugin Promoting Bolt.com IE Plugin Promoting Bolt.com

In testing of April 23, I browsed Google and received the popunder shown at right (after activation) and in video. Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From IE Plugin (purportedly of Belize), to Paypopup (of Ontario, Canada), to Paypopup’s multi-pops.com ad server, to Bolt (of New York). URLs in the sequence:

As shown in the packet log, this traffic originated with IE Plugin’s Adcycle.cgi ad-loader. This ad-loader sends traffic to a variety of ad networks, as best I can tell without any targeting whatsoever. Users therefore receive numerous untargeted ad windows, typically appearing as popups and popunders.

The resulting Bolt window appears without any attribution or branding indicating what spyware caused it to appear. This lack of labeling makes it particularly hard for users to figure out what program is responsible or to take action to stop further unwanted ads. IE Plugin’s unlabeled ads are particularly harmful because users may not have authorized the installation of IE Plugin in the first place: I have repeatedly seen IE Plugin install without user consent, including via bundles assembled by notorious spyware distributor Dollar Revenue.

The packet log indicates that Bolt purchased traffic not from IE Plugin directly, but rather from Paypopup. But Paypopup’s name and product descriptions specifically indicate the kind of ads that Paypopup sells forced visits — popups that appear without an affirmative end-user choice. The inevitable result of such traffic purchases is to inflate the measured popularity of the beneficiary web sites. So even if Bolt did not know it was buying spyware-originating advertising, Bolt must have known it was receiving forced visit traffic.

The packet log also shows that Paypopup specifically knew it was doing business with IE Plugin. Notice the repeated references to IE Plugin in the Paypopup and Multi-pops ad-loader URLs ("id=ieplugin").

Bolt’s "About" page includes a claim of "reach[ing] 14.9 million unique visitors each month." Taking this claim at face value, Bolt’s relationship with Paypopup and IE Plugin begs the question: How many of Bolt’s visitors are forced to see Bolt because spyware took them there, rather than because they affirmatively chose it?

Meanwhile, Bolt boasts top-tier advertisers including Verizon (shown in part in the screenshot above), Coca-Cola, Nike, and Sony. These brand-conscious advertisers are unlikely to want their ads to appear through spyware-delivered popups.

Example 2: Yourenhancement, Adtegrity, Right Media Exchange, and AdOn Network (MyGeek) Promoting PureVideo Networks’ GrindTV

Yourenhancement Promoting GrindTV Yourenhancement Promoting GrindTV

In testing of April 29, I browsed the web and received the full-screen popup shown at right. The popup was so large and so intrusive that it even covered the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray — preventing me from easily switching to another program.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From Yourenhancement (of Los Angeles), to Adtegrity (of Grand Rapids, Michigan), to the Right Media Exchange, to AdOn Network (previously MyGeek/Cpvfeed) (of Phoenix, Arizona) to Grind TV (of El Segundo, California). URLs in the sequence:…

Yourenhancement’s display.php3 ad-loader sends traffic to a variety of ad networks, by all indications without any targeting whatsoever. Users therefore receive numerous untargeted popups and popunders. As in the prior example, the resulting window lacks any branding to indicate what spyware caused it to appear or how users can prevent future popups from the same source.

Yourenhancement’s unlabled ads are particularly harmful because users may not have authorized the installation of Yourenhancement in the first place: I have repeatedly seen Yourenhancement install without user consent — including in bundles assembled by DollarRevenue, in WMF exploits served from ExitExchange, in misleading ActiveX bundles packaged by IE Plugin, and in a CoolWebSearch exploit served from Runeguide.

The packet log indicates that GrindTV purchased traffic not from Fullcontext directly, but rather from AdOn Network. However, advertising professionals should know that buying advertising from AdOn Network inevitably means receiving traffic from spyware. For example, Direct Revenue’s site previously disclosed that Direct Revenue shows AdOn ads, while AdOn’s site admitted showing ads through both Direct Revenue ("OfferOptimizer") and Zango (180solutions). My site has repeatedly covered AdOn’s role in spyware placements (1, 2, 3, 4). I continue to observe traffic flowing directly to MyGeek from various spyware installed without user consent, including Look2me and Targetsaver. With voluminous documentation freely available, advertisers cannot reasonably claim not to know what kind of ads AdOn sells.

The GrindTV site is operated by PureVideo Networks. I have previously seen spyware-originating forced visits to other PureVideo sites, including Stupidvideos.com and Hollywoodupclose.com.

PureVideo’s "News" page specifically touts the company’s reported popularity ("among top 10 US video sites by market share", "top growing sites", "StupidVideos Climb Charts", etc.). In March, ComScore even announced that PureVideo sites were the ninth-fastest growing properties on the web. But in that same month, I observed widespread forced-visit promotion of multiple PureVideo sites. Forced visits can easily cause a dramatic traffic jump — the same occurrence ComScore reported. It’s hard to know whether PureVideo’s forced visits inflated ComScore’s measurements of PureVideo’s popularity, but that seems like a plausible possibility, particularly in light of Nielsen/NetRatings’ 2006 cut of Entrepreneur’s traffic (after Entrepreneur had used similar tactics).

PureVideo’s Investors & Advisors page indicates that PureVideo has received outside investment, including a $5.6 million investment from SoftBank Capital.

Example 3: Yourenhancement, Adtegrity, Right Media Exchange, and AdOn Network (MyGeek) Promoting Broadcaster.com

Yourenhancement Promoting GrindTV Yourenhancement Promoting Broadcaster

In testing of April 29, I browsed the web and received the popup shown at right.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From Yourenhancement (widely installed without consent, as set out above) to Adtegrity, to the Right Media Exchange, to AdOn Network to Broadcaster (of Las Vegas). URLs in the sequence:…

As in the preceding example, traffic originated with Yourenhancement’s display.php3 ad-loader, and lacked any branding to indicate its source. The preceding example reports some of the many contexts in which Yourenhancement has become installed on my test PCs without my consent.

The packet log indicates that GrindTV purchased traffic from AdOn. But as the preceding example explains, Broadcaster should reasonably have known that buying traffic from AdOn means receiving forced-visit traffic as well as spyware-originating traffic.

Broadcaster has recently issued press releases to promote its increased traffic ("Broadcaster traffic rankings soar … one of the fastest growing online entertaining communities"; "88% increase in month-over-month website traffic"; "Tremendous audience growth"; etc.). So Broadcaster clearly views its traffic statistics as important. Yet nowhere in Broadcaster’s press releases does Broadcaster mention that its reported visitor counts include visitors who arrived involuntarily.

Broadcaster is a publicly traded company (OTC: BCSR.OB). Broadcaster’s December 2006 SEC 10KSB/A disclosure does briefly discuss Broadcaster’s purchase of "online advertisements … to attract new users" to its service. But the word "advertisements" tends to suggest mere solicitations (e.g. banner ads), not full impressions that cause a loading of Broadcaster’s site (and hence a tick in reported traffic figures). In my review of this and other Broadcaster financial documents, I could find no direct admission that Broadcaster buys cheap forced visits, then counts those involuntary visits towards records of site popularity. It appears that investors may be buying shares in Broadcaster without understanding the true origins of at least some of Broadcaster’s traffic.

This is not Broadcaster’s first run-in with spyware. Broadcaster’s Accessmedia subsidiary was named as a co-defendant in FTC and Washington Attorney General 2006 suits against Movieland et al., alleging that defendants’ software "barrages consumers’ computers with pop-up windows demanding payment to make the pop-ups go away." According to the FTC’s complaint, Broadcaster’s Accessmedia subsidiary served as the registrant and technical contact for Movieland.com, and also shared telephone numbers and customer service with Movieland.

Example 4: Web Nexus Promoting Orbitz’s Away.com

Web Nexus Promoting Orbitz's Away.com Web Nexus Promoting Orbitz’s Away.com

In testing of April 29, I browsed the web and received the full-screen popup shown at right. As in Example 2, the popup even covered the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray — preventing me from easily switching to another program. Meanwhile, the ad appeared substantially unlabeled — with a small Web Nexus caption at ad bottom, but with the caption’s letters more than half off-screen.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From Web Nexus (purportedly of Bosnia and Herzegovina) directly to Orbitz’s Away.com. URLs in the sequence:


The packet log indicates that Away.com received traffic directly from Web Nexus. Web Nexus is well-known to be unwanted advertising software: The first page of Google search results for "Web Nexus" includes five references to spyware, four to adware, one to viruses, and six to user complaints seeking assistance with removal. I have personally observed Web Nexus becoming installed through a WMF exploit and through the DollarRevenue bundler, among other methods.

Orbitz’s Away.com popup provides three distinct business benefits to Orbitz. First, the popup promotes Orbitz’s own services (e.g. its hotel booking services). Second, the popup promotes Orbitz’s advertisers (here, Verizon, despite Verizon’s repeatedlystated policy of not advertising through spyware). Finally, the popup inflates traffic statistics to Away.com — likely increasing advertisers’ future willingness to pay for ads at Away.com.

Example 5: WebBuying and Exit Exchange Promoting Roo TV

WebBuying Promoting Roo TV WebBuying Promoting Roo TV

In testing of April 23, I browsed the web and received the full-screen popup shown at right. As in Example 2 and 4, the popup covered the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray, and lacked readable labeling of its source.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed as follows: From WebBuying (a newer variant of Web Nexus) to ExitExchange to Roo TV. URLs in the sequence:


The packet log indicates that Roo TV received traffic directly from Exit Exchange — traffic that Exit Exchange reasonably should have known would include spyware-originating traffic. Exit Exchange widely receives spyware-originating traffic, passing from a variety of spyware to Exit Exchange, and onwards to Exit Exchange’s advertisers. (For example, in June 2006 I showed Exit Exchange receiving traffic from Surf Sidekick spyware, widely installed without consent. Meanwhile, SiteAdvisor rates Exit Exchange red for delivering exploits to users’ PCs — behavior I documented in February 2006 and observed twice last week alone.)

The Roo TV landing page URL leaves no doubt that Roo TV knew it was receiving forced visits. Notice the "channel-pop" tag in the URL log above — specifically conceding that the traffic at issue was not requested by users.

Roo TV’s "About" page reveals Roo’s emphasis on traffic quantity: The page’s first sentence boasts that "Roo is consistently ranked as one of the world’s ten most viewed online video networks." But, as in the preceding examples, forced visits raise questions about how Roo got so popular. Is Roo a top-ten site in users’ minds, or only a destination users are frequently forced to visit, against their wishes?

Example 6: WebBuying Promoting Diet.com

WebBuying Promoting Diet.com WebBuying Promoting Diet.com

In testing of April 23, WebBuying also served a full-screen popup of Diet.com — again covering the Start Menu, Taskbar, and System Tray, and again lacking readable labeling to disclose its source. Screen-capture video.

Packet log analysis reveals that traffic flowed from WebBuying directly to Diet:


As in the Away.com example, Diet.com receives several benefits from this popup: Promoting its own content, showing ads for third parties (here, Nutrisystem), and inflating its traffic statistics.

Alexa’s traffic statistics show a 5x+ jump in Diet traffic in early March — the same period in which I began observing forced visits to Diet.com.

Additional Examples on File

The preceding six examples are only a portion of my recent records of spyware-originating forced-visit I have recently observed. Under euphemisms that range from "audience development" to "push traffic," these tactics have become widespread and, by all indications, continue to grow. I have seen other popups from each of these sites on numerous other occasions, and I have seen similar popups from other sites delivered via similar methods.

Implications & Policy Responses

Video sites are strikingly prevalent in the preceding examples and in other forced-visit traffic I have observed. Why? Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube inspired others hoping to receive even a fraction of YouTube’s valuation. So far no competitor has gained much traction. But the expectation that video sites grow virally creates an incentive to try to jump-start traffic by any means possible — even spyware-originating traffic.

When forced-visit sites show ads, they tend to promote well-known advertisers. For example, two of the preceding examples (1, 4) feature Verizon, despite Verizon’s stated policy against spyware advertising. While concerned advertisers have generally added anti-spyware policies to their ad contracts, they still tend to ignore the problem of web sites buying spyware traffic. Verizon staff will probably take the position that it is not permissible for a Verizon ad to be shown in a site that receives widespread spyware traffic. But then Verizon’s ad contracts and other policy statements probably need to say so. Same for ad networks seeking to avoid reselling spyware inventory. In practice, few ad policies prohibit intermediary sites buying spyware-originating traffic.

Low-cost spyware-originating traffic can vastly increase a site’s reported popularity. Consider Alexa’s plot of Roo TV traffic. During April 2007 (when I first began to observe spyware-originating forced visits of Roo TV), Alexa reports that Roo’s reach and page views both jumped by an order of magnitude. It is difficult to know how much of this jump results from spyware-originating forced-visit traffic — rather than other kinds of forced visits, or conceivably bona fide user interest. But the New York Times piece reported that when ComScore last year adjusted Entrepreneur’s statistics to account for forced visits, traffic was reduced by 65%. A similar reduction may be required for the sites set out above.

When forced-visit sites show banner ads, the sites raise many of the same concerns as banner farms — including overwhelming advertising, unrequested popups, automatic reloads, opaque resale of spyware-originating traffic, and an overall bad value to advertisers. Particularly prominent among spyware-delivered banner farms is India Broadcast Live’s Smashits — which buys widespread spyware-originating forced-visit traffic, and shows as many as six different banner ads in a page that otherwise lacks substantial content. In some instances, Smashits’ page hijacks users’ browsers: Spyware removes the page a user had requested, and instead shows only the Smashits site. (Video example.) These practices may lead concerned advertisers and ad networks to avoid doing business with Smashits, including Smashits’ many alter egos and secondary domain names. But at present, Smashits continues to show ads from top advertisers and ad networks (particularly FastClick, Google, and TribalFusion). Same for other banner farms still in operation.


Sophisticated advertisers and ad networks rightly want to know which sites are buying spyware-originating forced-click traffic. But they can’t answer that question merely by examining individual sites: Bolt, GrindTV, and kin all look like ordinary sites, without any obvious sign that they get traffic from spyware. So advertisers and networks’ can’t catch spyware-originating traffic. using their usual techniques for evaluating publishers (such as browsing publishers’ sites in search of explicit or offensive materials).

Advertisers and ad networks might look for unusual changes in sites’ reported traffic rank — on the view that extreme spikes probably indicate forced-visit traffic. But there can be legitimate reasons for traffic spikes. Furthermore, an unexpected traffic jump will often prove an insufficient reason to block a prospective advertising relationship. Finally, if advertisers and ad networks distrusted sites with traffic spikes, sites could start their forced-click campaigns more gradually, to avoid tell-tale jumps. So checking for traffic spikes is not a sustainable strategy.

With help from traffic measurement vendors, advertisers and ad networks could attempt to measure visit length rather than visit count. But even visit length measurement might not prevent miscounting of spyware-originating forced visits. Some spyware opens sites off-screen — where JavaScript or other code could extend traffic indefinitely to inflate measured visit length as needed, without users noticing and closing the resulting windows.

The only robust way to detect spyware-originating forced visits is through testing of actual spyware-infected PCs — by watching their behavior and seeing what sites they show. Historically, I’ve done this testing manually, as in the examples set out above. Fortunately, detecting widespread spyware-originating traffic is easy — because, by hypothesis, the traffic is common and hence likely to appear even in brief testing. That said, a scalable automated system might be preferable to my hands-on testing. I’ve recently built an automatic tester that performs this function, among others. I’ll describe it more in a coming piece. US patent pending.

Advertising Through Spyware — After Promising To Stop

On January 29, the New York Attorney General announced an important step in the fight against spyware: Holding advertisers accountable for their payments to spyware vendors. This is a principle I’ve long endorsed — beginning with my 2003 listing of Gator advertisers (then including Apple, Chrysler, and Orbitz), and continuing in my more recent articles about advertising intermediaries funding spyware and specific companies advertising through spyware.

I’m not the only one to applaud this approach. FTC Commissioner Leibowitz recently commended the NYAG’s settlement, explaining that “advertising dollars fuel the demand side of the nuisance adware problem by giving [adware vendors] the incentive to expand their installed base, with or without consumers’ consent.” In a pair of 2006 reports, the Center for Democracy and Technology also investigated spyware advertisers, attempting to expose the web of relationships that fund spyware vendors.

The NYAG’s settlement offers a major step forward in stopping spyware because it marks the first legally binding obligation that certain advertisers keep their ads (and their ad budgets) out of spyware. In Assurances of Discontinuance, Cingular (now part of AT&T), Priceline, and Travelocity each agreed to cease use of spyware. In particular, each company agreed either to stop using spyware advertising, or to use only "adware" that provides appropriate disclosures to users, prominently labels ads, and offers an easy procedure to uninstall. These requirements apply to ads purchased directly by Cingular, Priceline, and Travelocity, as well as to all marketing partners acting on their behalf.

These important promises are the first legally-binding obligations, from any Internet advertisers, to restrict use of spyware. (Compare, e.g., advertisers voluntarily announcing an intention to cease spyware advertising — admirable but not legally binding.) If followed, these promises would keep the Cingular, Priceline, and Travelocity ad budgets away from spyware vendors — reducing the economic incentive to make and distribute spyware.

But despite their duties to the NYAG, both Cingular and Travelocity have failed to sever their ties with spyware vendors. As shown in the six examples below, Cingular and Travelocity continue to receive spyware-originating traffic, including traffic from some of the web’s most notorious and most widespread spyware, in direct violation of their respective Assurances of Discontinuance. That said, Priceline seems to have succeeded in substantially reducing these relationships — suggesting that Cingular and Travelocity could do better if they put forth appropriate effort.

Example 1: Fullcontext, Yieldx (Admedian), Icon Media (Vizi) Injecting Travelocity Ad Into Google

A Travelocity Ad Injected into Google by Fullcontext A Travelocity Ad Injected into Google by Fullcontext

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   Icon (Vizi Media)    
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   Yieldx (Ad|Median)    
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The Money Trail – How Travelocity Pays Fullcontext

On a PC with Fullcontext spyware installed (controlling server, I requested www.google.com. In testing of February 13, I received the image shown in the thumbnail at right — with a large 728×90 pixel banner ad appearing above the Google site. Google does not sell this advertising placement to any advertiser for any price. But Fullcontext spyware placed Travelocity’s ad there nonetheless — without permission from Google, and without payment to Google.

As shown in the video I preserved, clicking the ad takes users through to the Travelocity site. The full list of URLs associated with this ad placement:

As shown in the URL log and packet log, Fullcontext initiated the ad placement by sending traffic to the Yieldx ad network. (Yieldx’s Whois reports an address in Hong Kong. But Yieldx is hosted at an IP block registered to Ad|Median, an ad network with headquarters near Minneapolis.) Using the Right Media Exchange marketplace (yieldmanager.com), Yieldx/Ad|Median then sold the traffic to Icon Media Networks (now Vizi Media of LA and New York), which placed the Travelocity ad. The diagram at right depicts the chain of relationships.

This placement is typical of the Fullcontext injector. I have tracked numerous Fullcontext placements, through multiple controlling servers. I retain many dozens of examples on file. See also prior examples posted to my public site: 1, 2, 3.

The Fullcontext injector falls far short of the requirements of Travelocity’s Assurance of Discontinuance. For one, users often receive Fullcontext without agreeing to install it — through exploits and in undisclosed bundles (violating Travelocity Assurance page 4, provision 11.a; PDF page 11). Furthermore, Fullcontext’s ads lack any branding indicating what adware program delivered them — violating Assurance provision 11.b, which requires such branding to appear prominently on each adware advertisement. Fullcontext’s uninstall and legacy user functions also fail to meet the requirements set out in the Assurance.

Example 2: Fullcontext and Motive Interactive Injecting Cingular Ad Into Google

A CingularAd Injected into Google by Fullcontext A Cingular Ad Injected into Google by Fullcontext

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   Motive Interactive   
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The Money Trail – How Cingular Pays Fullcontext

Through the MovieInteractive ad network, Fullcontext also injects the Cingular ad into Google. See screenshot at right, taken on February 17. On a PC with Fullcontext spyware installed (controlling server, I requested www.google.com. I received the image shown in the thumbnail at right — with a prominent Cingular banner ad appearing above Google. As in the case of Travelocity, this ad appeared without permission from Google and without payment to Google. Rather, the ad was placed into Google’s site by Fullcontext spyware.

The full list of URLs associated with this ad placement:

As shown in the URL log and packet log, Fullcontext sent traffic to Motive Interactive, a Nevada ad network. Using the Right Media Exchange marketplace (yieldmanager.com), Motive Interactive sold the traffic to Cingular. The diagram at right depicts the chain of relationships. Notice that Cingular’s relationship with Fullcontext is one level shorter than the Travelocity relationship in Example 1.

Cingular should have known that this traffic was coming from spyware, because detailed information about the ad placement was sent to Cingular’s web servers whenever a user clicked a FullContext-placed ad. The packet log shows the information sent to the Atlas servers operating on Cingular’s behalf:

http://view.atdmt.com/CNT/iview/rghtccin0470000088cnt/direct;wi.728;hi.90/01?click=http:// ad.motiveinteractive.com/click,jwIAAC54AgD5QwMAtVQBAAIAZAAAAP8AAAAHEQAABgTudAIAmUcCAPqaAAC

The first portion of the URL specifies what ad is to be shown, while the portion following the question mark reports how traffic purportedly reached this ad. (This information structure is standard for Right Media placements.) Notice the green highlighted text — telling Atlas (and in turn Cingular) that this ad was purportedly shown at www.google.com. But Atlas and Cingular should know that the www.google.com page does not sell banner ads to any advertiser at any price. The purported placement is therefore impossible — unless the ad was actually injected into Google’s site using spyware. The presence of this Google URL in Cingular’s referer log should have raised alarms at Cingular and should have prompted further investigation.

Example 3: Deskwizz/Searchingbooth and Ad-Flow (Rydium) Injecting Travelocity Ad Into True.com

A Travelocity Ad Injected into True.com by Searchingbooth A Travelocity Ad Injected into True.com by Searchingbooth

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   Ad-Flow (Rydium)  
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The Money Trail – How Travelocity Pays Searchingbooth

Fullcontext is just one of several active ad injectors that place ads into other companies’ sites. The screenshot at right shows a injection performed by Deskwizz/Searchingbooth. In March 9 testing, I requested True.com. Deskwizz placed a large (720×300) pixel banner into the top of the page (not shown), and another into the bottom. This latter banner, shown in the thumbnail at right, promoted Travelocity. Just as the preceding examples occurred without payment to or permission from Google, this placement occurred without payment to or permission from True.com. Rather, the ad was placed into Google’s site by Deskwizz/Searchingbooth spyware.

The full list of URLs associated with this ad placement:

http://www.uzoogle.com   [posted parameter: PID=811]

As shown in the URL log and packet log, Deskwizz/Searchingbooth sent traffic to its Uzoogle ad loader, which forwarded the traffic onwards to Ad-Flow. (Ad-flow is the ad server of Rydium, a Toronto ad network.) The traffic then flowed through to the Right Media Exchange marketplace (yieldmanager.com), where it was sold to Travelocity. The diagram at right depicts the chain of relationships.

This placement is typical of Deskwizz/Searchingbooth. I have tracked a web of domain names operated by this group — including Calendaralerts, Droppedurl, Headlinesandnews, Z-Quest, and various others — that all receive traffic from and through similar banner injections. Z-quest.com describes itself as a "meta-search" site, while Uzoogle presents itself as offering Google-styled logos and branded search results. But in fact these sites all serve to route, frame, and redirect spyware-originating traffic, as shown above. I retain many dozens of examples on file. See also the multiple examples I have posted to my public site: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Example 4: Deskwizz/Searchingbooth and Right Media Injecting Cingular Ad Into True.com

A Cingular Ad Injected into True.com by Searchingbooth A Cingular Ad Injected into True.com by Searchingbooth

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   Yield Manager / Right Media Exchange  
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The Money Trail – How Cingular Pays Searchingbooth

Deskwizz/Searchingbooth also injects Cingular ads into third parties’ sites, including into True.com. The screenshot at right shows the resulting on-screen display (as observed on March 9). The screenshot depicts a Cingular ad placed into True.com without True’s permission and without payment to True.

The full list of URLs associated with this ad placement:


As shown in the URL log and packet log, Deskwizz/Searchingbooth sent traffic to the Right Media‘s Rmxads. The traffic then flowed through to the Right Media Exchange marketplace (yieldmanager.com), where it was sold to Cingular. The diagram at right depicts the chain of relationships.

Cingular should have known that this ad was appearing through spyware injections for the same reason presented in Example 2. In particular, the packet log reveals that specific information about ad context was reported to Cingular’s server whenever a user clicked an injected ad. This context information put Cingular on notice as to where its ads were appearing — including sites on which Cingular had never sought to advertise, and even including sites that do not accept advertising.

Example 5: Web Nexus, Traffic Marketplace Promoting Travelocity in Full-Screen Pop-Up Ads

Web Nexus Promotes Travelocity - Full-Screen Pop-Up Web Nexus Promotes Travelocity Using a Full-Screen Pop-Up

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   Traffic Marketplace   
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Web Nexus

The Money Trail – How Travelocity Pays Web Nexus

Although the four preceding examples all show banner ad injections, pop-up ads remain the most common form of spyware advertising. Spyware-delivered pop-ups continue to promote both Cingular and Travelocity. For example, Web Nexus is widely installed without consent (example) and in big bundles without the disclosures required by the Travelocity’s Assurance of Discontinuance. Yet Web Nexus continues to promote Travelocity through intrusive full-screen pop-ups, like that shown at right (taken on February 22). Indeed, this pop-up is so large and so intrusive that it even covers the Start button — preventing users from easily switching to another program or window.

The Travelocity ad at issue is also striking for its lack of branding or other attribution. A user who manages to move the pop-up upwards will find a small "Web Nexus" footer at the ad’s bottom edge. But this label initially appears substantially off-screen and hence unreadable. In contrast, Travelocity’s Assurance of Discontinuance (Travelocity section, page 4, provision 11.b; PDF page 11) requires that each adware-delivered advertisement be branded with a "prominent" name or icon. Because it appears off-screen, Web Nexus’s ad label cannot satisfy the NYAG’s prominence requirement. Furthermore, packet log analysis reveals that this placement is the foreseeable result of Web Nexus’s design decisions. Further discussion and analysis.

The full list of URLs associated with this ad placement:


As shown in the URL log and packet log, Web Nexus sent traffic to Traffic Marketplace (a New York ad network owned by California’s Vendare Media). The traffic then flowed through to Travelocity. The diagram at right depicts the relationships.

Example 6: Targetsaver, EasilyFound, LinkShare Promoting Cingular in Full-Screen Pop-Up Ads

TargetSaver Promotes Cingular Using a Full-Screen Pop-Up TargetSaver Promotes Cingular Using a Full-Screen Pop-Up

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The Money Trail – How Cingular Pays TargetSaver

In testing of March 8, I searched for "get ringtones" at Google. I received the full-screen pop-up shown at right. This pop-up was served to me by TargetSaver spyware, widely installed consent (example) and with misleading and/or hidden disclosures (1, 2). These installation practices cannot meet Cingular’s duties under its Assurance of Discontinuance (Cingular section, page 4, provision 14.a; PDF page 18).

The full list of URLs associated with this ad placement:


As shown in the URL log and packet log, TargetSaver sent traffic to EasilyFound. EasilyFound then forwarded the traffic on to LinkShare, a New York affiliate network, which sent the traffic to Cingular.

Cingular should have known that a partnership with EasilyFound would entail Cingular ads being shown through spyware. EasilyFound describes itself as "a metacrawler search engine." But in my extended testing, EasilyFound widely buys spyware-originating traffic and sends that traffic onwards to affiliate merchants (Cingular among others). I have previously described this general practice in multiple articles on my public web site. I have also publicly documented this very behavior by EasilyFound specifically. In May 2006 slides, I showed EasilyFound buying traffic from Targetsaver and sending that traffic onwards to LinkShare and Walmart. I even posted an annotated packet log and traffic flow diagram. My slides have been available on the web for approximately ten months. Yet, by all indications, this affiliate remains in good standing at LinkShare and continues the same practices I documented last year.

According to Whois data, EasilyFound is based in Santa Monica, California, although EasilyFound’s Contact page gives no street address.

Additional Examples on File

The preceding six examples are only a portion of my recent records of spyware-originating ads from Cingular and Travelocity. I retain additional examples on file. My additional examples include additional banner injections, additional pop-ups, additional traffic flowing through Cingular’s affiliate program (LinkShare), and traffic flowing through Travelocity’s affiliate program (Commission Junction).

In my extended testing during the past two months, I have recorded only a single example of Priceline ads shown by spyware. That placement occurred through Priceline’s affiliate program, operated by Commission Junction.

The Scope of the Problem

The Assurances of Discontinuance reflect the remarkable size of the advertising expenditures that triggered the New York Attorney General’s intervention.

  Cingular Wireless (AT&T) Priceline Travelocity
Amount spent with Direct Revenue At least $592,172 At least $481,765.05 At least $767,955.93
Duration of Direct Revenue relationship April 1, 2004 through October 11, 2005 May 1, 2004 through February 24, 2006 July 1, 2004 through April 15, 2006
Number of ads shown At least 27,623,257 At least 6,142,395 At least 2,103,341
Knowledge of Direct Revenue’s practices "Even though Cingular was aware of controversy surrounding the use of adware and was aware, or should have been aware, of Direct Revenue’s deceptive practices, including surreptitious downloads, Cingular continued to use Direct Revenue." "Priceline knew that consumers had downloaded Direct Revenue adware without full notice and consent and continued to receive ads through that software." "Travelocity was aware that Direct Revenue had … been the subject of consumer complaints that Direct Revenue had surreptitiously installed its software on consumers’ computers without adequate notice."
Additional factors listed by NYAG   "Some of Priceline’s advertisements were delivered directly to consumers from web servers owned or controlled by Priceline."  
Payment to New York $35,000 of investigatory costs and penalties $35,000 of investigatory costs and penalties $30,000 of investigatory costs and penalties

These three advertisers alone paid more than $1.8 million to Direct Revenue — approximately 2% of Direct Revenue’s 2004-2005 revenues. See detailed Direct Revenue financial records.

Internet Advertising and the Generalized Second Price Auction: Selling Billions of Dollars Worth of Keywords

Edelman, Benjamin, Michael Ostrovsky, and Michael Schwarz. “Internet Advertising and the Generalized Second Price Auction: Selling Billions of Dollars Worth of Keywords.” American Economic Review 97, no. 1 (March 2007): 242-259. (Winner of the 2013 Prize in Game Theory and Computer Science from the Game Theory Society for “the best paper at the interface of game theory and computer science in the last decade”.)

We investigate the “generalized second-price” auction (GSP), a new mechanism used by search engines to sell online advertising. Although GSP looks similar to the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves (VCG) mechanism, its properties are very different. Unlike the VCG mechanism, GSP generally does not have an equilibrium in dominant strategies, and truth-telling is not an equilibrium of GSP. To analyze the properties of GSP, we describe the generalized English auction that corresponds to the GSP and show that it has a unique equilibrium. This is an ex post equilibrium, with the same payoffs to all players as the dominant strategy equilibrium of VCG.

Strategic Bidder Behavior in Sponsored Search Auctions

Edelman, Benjamin, and Michael Ostrovsky. “Strategic Bidder Behavior in Sponsored Search Auctions.” Decision Support Systems 43, no. 1 (February 2007): 192-198. (Winner of Emerald Citations of Excellence.)

We examine sponsored search auctions run by Overture (now part of Yahoo!) and Google and present evidence of strategic bidder behavior in these auctions. Between June 15, 2002, and June 14, 2003, we estimate that Overture’s revenue from sponsored search might have been higher if it had been able to prevent this strategic behavior. We present a specific alternative mechanism that could reduce the amount of strategizing by bidders, raise search engines’ revenue, and also increase the overall efficiency of the market. We conclude by showing that advertisers’ strategic behavior has not disappeared over time; rather, such behavior remains present on both search engines.