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How Misinformation Publishers Are Exploiting Ad-Tech Supply Chains

Published on Wed Oct 18 2023google-adsense-logo1 | Thaweesha Senanayake on Flickr google-adsense-logo1 | Thaweesha Senanayake on Flickr

A recent preprint paper titled "The Inventory is Dark and Full of Misinformation: Understanding Ad Inventory Pooling in the Ad-Tech Supply Chain" sheds light on the exploitation and deception that occurs within the ad-tech supply chain. The study reveals how low-quality publishers, particularly misinformation websites, are able to monetize their ad inventory and deceive reputable brands. The findings highlight the need for improved vetting of ad exchange supply partners, new transparency standards, and independent audits to combat ad fraud and protect brand safety.

Online advertising relies on the ability of advertisers and publishers to buy and sell ad inventory programmatically across millions of websites in real-time. However, the complex ad-tech supply chain, which involves hundreds of specialized entities, is vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Fraudsters create low-quality websites and drive traffic to them using illegitimate means, such as bots or click-bait tactics. This fraudulent activity undermines the effectiveness of brand safety features that aim to block ad inventory from web pages containing objectionable content.

The study focuses on a deceptive practice called "dark pooling," in which publishers exploit the ad-tech supply chain by pooling their ad inventory with unrelated sites. This practice allows low-quality publishers, including misinformation websites, to sell their ad inventory to reputable brands, deceiving them into purchasing ad space. The study finds that dark pooling is prevalent among misinformation publishers on major ad exchanges, posing a significant problem for the industry.

The ad-tech industry has implemented transparency standards, such as ads.txt and sellers.json, to combat ad fraud and enable buyers to verify the sources of the inventory they are purchasing. However, the study reveals widespread non-compliance and misrepresentations in these standards. Many publishers, especially misinformation websites, fail to comply with these transparency requirements, and ad inventory pooling remains common.

The study highlights the ineffectiveness of brand safety tools in preventing reputable brands from inadvertently advertising on misinformation websites. Reputable brands, including Forbes, Microsoft, and Verizon, were found to have their ads appearing on misinformation websites. Misinformation websites that engage in dark pooling are nearly 20% more likely to attract ads from reputable brands than those that do not participate in dark pooling. These findings emphasize the urgent need for improved vetting of ad exchange supply partners and stricter compliance with transparency standards.

The security researchers suggest several measures to address the issues raised in the study. These include improving vetting processes for ad exchange supply partners, adopting new ad-tech transparency standards that allow end-to-end validation of the supply chain, and implementing independent audits. Additionally, there is a need for effective notification and vulnerability reporting mechanisms within the ad-tech industry. The study's findings highlight the gaps and challenges in the current ad-tech supply chain and call for further research and systemic solutions to combat ad fraud, protect brand safety, and mitigate the funding of misinformation.


Written by Yash Vekaria (1), Rishab Nithyanand (2), Zubair Shafiq (1) ((1) University of California, Davis, (2) University of Iowa)
Tags: Computer Science | Computer Science:Security

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