Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Ad Giant Publicis Tells Publishers to Throw Bodies at the Fake Web Ads Problem

Last month, the New York Times (NYT) was attacked by hackers who bought fake Web ads from the publisher. And one of the world’s biggest ad companies says that won’t be the last assault.

Publicis, the giant French ad holding company, has been warning Web publishers to be “hyper-vigilant” about other bogus ads like the ones the Times mistakenly sold, which were purportedly for Vonage (VG) but were actually designed to distribute malware. Publicis, whose units includes Starcom, Digitas, Optimedia, MediaVest, Zenith, and Spark, has been sending out letters warning publishers to be wary of the rogue ads, which it describes as an “industry issue.”

The catch: It appears that the only way to combat the attacks, at least in the near-term, is to do something that runs counter to industry trends: Throw bodies at the problem. Publicis wants publishers to individually verify the ad orders they receive, which would be a nonissue for traditional media but is a problem for Web publishing, which increasingly relies on automation. Mediapost:

The incidents have exposed potential vulnerabilities in on online publishing security, and are causing advertisers, agencies and publishers alike to reassess the processes they use to conduct business, especially as they interact with an increasing array of third-party intermediaries–advertising networks, exchanges, etc.–many of which place insertion orders automatically and without human intervention. The solution, as the Times’ and Publicis’ new policies suggest, is to reinsert human interaction into the process–at least for the time being.

Whoops. That whole thrust of Web publishing is get humans as far away as possible from buying and selling decisions: The ad exchange that Google (GOOG) launched last month, for instance, is designed to handle those tasks in milliseconds. Now think about how long it takes to pick up the phone to actually confirm that ad buyers are who they say they are [shudder].

It’s possible that this is simply butt-covering on the part of Publicis (these attacks have been out there for quite some time) and that this will blow over soon. But I don’t think so. Which means the ascent of Web ads may slow down, just a bit, as the industry figures out just how many humans it will take to fight the problem.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik