Friday, March 06, 2015

The 1x1 Pixel Strikes Back - by Ruslan Tepelyan

A few weeks ago, Ad Age reported on a massive ad fraud scheme, whereby fraudsters would sell lots video ads on a website, then compress the entire website into a 1x1 pixel, and insert that into a banner ad they bought on a normal website. The result was that they were able to sell "video ad traffic" to advertisers for millions of dollars. Amusingly (unless you are a victim), just weeks after the fraud was publicly revealed, it is back in action! There doesn't seem to be any robust means for detecting and stopping it on the fly. The fraudsters had even downloaded and modified the leading brands of fraud detection software, so that their websites would return "all clear" signals when queried by the fraud detectors' sensors.

Fraud is always a cat-and-mouse game, in any industry and at any time, but it seems to me that in this case, marketers are not just patsies falling for a clever trick, they are reaping what they've sown. Auto-playing videos, redirecting links, invisible 1x1 pixels full of content, traffic interception and tracking - these are all hacks, not in the malicious sense, but in the engineering sense. They are tricks, workarounds, and cludges, designed to graft a marketing infrastructure onto an Internet framework that was not built for one. When your whole industry is built on hacks, it is no wonder that it would be hard to detect just one more hack, even if it is clearly fraudulent while the rest were well-intentioned.

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